It’s Revision Time

Image courtesy of The Garden of Words

So for the most part, Queen Ophelia is done — in fact, I’d called it when I realized I’d been overwriting past the actual end for the last week or so — and I’m putting that one aside to simmer for a few weeks while I shift all my focus towards revising Theadia. That’s coming along quite nicely, by the way, as I’ve just started working on Chapter 13, in which our intrepid titular duo are about to embark on a flight from hell. (You know the kind: the delays, the lack of open gates, and the purgatory of waiting for your stuff at baggage claim. Some things never change.)

While I do love revising my work, especially when I’m working on something that excites me, the one side effect is the lack of new words. Right now I’m not worried because I’m actually inserting new scenes and things into the revision, but further down the line, I’m sure I’ll be itching to write something new. What that’ll be I’m not sure, but I’ll focus on that when its time comes.

Revision, at least for me, is kind of like putting the spackle on the nail holes and the grout between the tiles. I write complete rough first drafts to begin with, or as complete as I can get them at any rate. I’ll do most of the hard cleanup on the first couple of chapters — deleting the broken bits and inserting the information that will tie in with later scenes — but for most of the rest of the novel, I’ll be focusing more on spot-cleaning. That’s where I’ll fix wonky grammar, find/replace any changed names, give a bit more detail, and create smoother links between scenes. As I’d mentioned last month, I’m Filling In the Blanks.

Interestingly enough, it’s not until revision time where I finally question what the real theme of the book is. I mean, I kind of have a general idea while I’m writing it for the first time, but this is when I decide what its focus truly is. In Theadia, for instance, I knew the theme in vaguest terms was about personal and societal responsibility. But the real theme expands on that: it becomes a story about questioning who has this responsibility, and finding the strength and initiative to take it on yourself when it’s failing at every other level. I could go into even more detail here, but I think you get the point.

I do love revising, actually. The toughest part — the initial invention and telling of the story — is already over. It’s already a complete entity. I love revision because I’m familiar with the story now, and that gives me the ability to figure out how to make it even better. That’s where I start painting the walls pretty colors and hanging the artwork!

Making It Work

Image courtesey of Digimon

Okay, I’ll be honest — I’m at a crossroads. Over the last few weeks I’d been contemplating whether or not I should let one or both of the blogs go on an indefinite hiatus, or to go in the opposite direction: to Make It Work. And right now I’m leaning towards the latter, because writing has been a lifelong endeavor. I mean, the last time I went on blogging hiatus was because I needed the mental and emotional vacation, especially after I’d left the Former Day Job. Now? Now it just feels like I’m just avoiding it for no reason.

One of the reasons this came to mind is because of my recent revision/rewrite work on Theadia, and the fact that working on it has felt so similar to working on the Bridgetown Trilogy back in my Belfry days. When the resonance to a project is this strong, I’m not going to dismiss it. Every day I look forward to working on it for a few hours! And I don’t think I’ve felt that in quite some time, probably not since those days, when I would come home from the Day Job and head downstairs every evening, eager to get writing.

It didn’t occur to me how much I’d missed that. That drive and excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I loved writing my last few novels both released and unreleased. But in hindsight I think some of those might have been written more out of necessity than enjoyment. I loved writing them and I’m proud of them, but they didn’t excite me quite like working on the trilogy did. Mind you, I forced myself not to think of it that way at the time because I knew that they were different projects. Theadia feels different. It could be that it’s a much larger epic-sized project (like the trilogy) and those are the ones I love writing the most. It could also just simply be about it being the right time for it. I’m not going to question it, though. I’m just going to enjoy it.

Back to blogging: what I believe I’ve been missing is that same drive. I enjoy posting, and god knows I can talk your ears off about music and writing when given the chance. So why have I been avoiding it off and on over the last couple of years? I’m pretty sure it’s the same as above: I’ve been writing about things I’m not as enthused about as I used to be. [Or alternately, that I’ve talked about things I do obsess over for so long that I’ve been repeating myself and getting frustrated by that. There is a very strong chance that could be the other culprit.]

So how make my blogging work for me again? Well, one of the obvious things is to post about new subjects that I’ve avoided in the past, either for personal reasons or because I’d been too distracted by other subjects. Let’s do an ongoing theme about my obsession with music in the 90s. Let’s post some microfiction I’ve piled up over the years. It’s about that resonance with the subject I want to talk about and share. And it’s also about being fine with writing things that aren’t always of high importance. Have fun with it. Enjoy it. Look forward to writing it, especially when it’s about things that resonate with me.

Sometimes it’s like being the conductor

Image courtesy of Sound! Euphonium

Sometimes when I’m writing a novel, especially when it’s a larger one like Theadia where there’s a lot going on and the cast is extensive, it feels like I’m keeping my eye on several different things at once, and it’s up to me to make sure it sounds like a Tchaikovsky symphony rather than a discordant mess.

For instance, right now I’m writing a brand new chapter that I’m inserting near the beginning that introduces not just a main character (from her own POV) but her own subplot that helps underscore one of the major themes. And to choose where to insert it, I focused on how it would fit musically.

Musically? Well, here’s the thing: I see the writing of my novels like I’m writing a symphony. I’ve got all these themes and motifs and melody repetitions (and even the occasional variation on the theme) that I have to put in a specific order that not only makes sense, but is also brings pleasure in its execution. Which means my brain isn’t just thinking about how this current scene I’m writing will play out…I’m also thinking about how it will affect other scenes further along, how I can use the motif (and the melody, and even the pace) further along in the story as a nod to its original appearance.

So in this new chapter, I couldn’t just insert it at the end of a plot arc, I had to find the best spot for it. In this case, a point where all the main characters I’ve introduced so far have had their initial introduction on the stage and established what their initial roles are going to be. The smaller rise-and-fall arcs of the plot so far have all temporarily settled. This gives the reader a moment to breathe, and a moment for me to bring in some new information that isn’t exactly part of the main plot arc — yet.

All this focus on the right pacing and flow are what makes my stories the way they are. I’ve always said that music is deeply influential in my creativity — there’s a reason I always have some playing when I write — and over the years I’ve learned that writing and music have quite a few similarities in how they come together to form a larger cohesive piece of work.

Theadia: Two Years On

Azusa and Naho from Orange

On this day in 2020, I had my 750Words page up on my work laptop (the one way I could get any writing done now that I’d been dragged kicking and screaming back to the office) and I was listening to Fuzzbox’s Big Bang for the second time that day. I was frustrated because I’d hit a serious slump: I needed to come up with a new project, but I’d dried up creatively for a while by then. Most of my 750Words entries at the time were ending up as repetitive personal journal entries and I was really getting sick of writing them.

Listening to that boppy, bubblegummy guilty pleasure of an album and deciding once and for all to stop limiting myself, I free-associated for a bit. And that was much harder to do than I’d remembered because I hadn’t done it properly in ages. But eventually, I came up with this partial later that morning.

I really should come up with an anime-inspired story. I mean, like along the lines of Carole & Tuesday or Dragon Pilots, maybe even with a bit of Tenchi Muyo thrown in. Light and fun and goofy with a darker subtext and long-game arc going on. I’ve been going on about how much I love that style, so why not?
Various thoughts:
— The high school manga: a group of boys and girls and the various shenanigans and dramas they go through. SFF spin..? Perhaps it’s set on a generation ship (another one of my favorite ideas I haven’t used yet), or perhaps a space waystation. Darker subtext/long-game plot? I’m thinking maybe it’s a twist on the ‘we’re all going our separate ways when we graduate’ theme in which some of them will become pilots, either for transports or for space force, which might make connections that much harder. Darker  subtext?  Hmm. Will have to think about it more.

So, Theadia was originally going to be a coming of age story between five or six young adults as they figure out their future plans. It would start out as a light-hearted story that grew progressively darker as the long-game arc became clearer. I didn’t even have a name for it yet…that came a short time later when I’d come up with the names Althea and Claudia. [Althea, as well as her relationship with Claudia, is after a character in Hannah Blumenriech’s Full Court Crush. Claudia is named after someone I knew in college who was highly intelligent yet very reserved. Theadia — Thea and Dia — came to me when I realized the story was really about these two goofballs.]

The first few grains of Theadia were sown a month or so later when I pared down the original group to the titular duo when I realized there was a story about them somewhere in there that I was subconsciously avoiding. But what was it?

I was going through a tough time and not getting anywhere creatively. It was a perfect storm of frustration towards the Day Job, fury and disgust at the then-current US President* (a term I use very loosely here, and only for clarity), and a feeling of desperation on several levels. This was the worst block I’d had in years. The last time I’d used that inner turmoil in my writing had to have been the trilogy, and I’d been actively avoiding using it since then. Okay, that’s not entirely true…that turmoil spilled into my personal journal entries and 750Words sessions and that was frustrating me as well, because I’d repeated myself so much I’d gotten sick of hearing myself complain. I was avoiding something. A lot of somethings.

After I’d left the Day Job and given myself some time to heal a bit, I knew I was ready to start Theadia again. And this time I wouldn’t avoid what was bothering me. I’d let it spill out onto the page. I based characters and settings and situations on certain aggravating things going on in my life up to that point. It was therapeutic writing that I didn’t realize I’d long needed.

Theadia, on the whole, is about doing the right thing when no one else steps up. More to the point, it’s about taking action when everyone else is saying it can’t be done Because Reasons. And those reasons would be rigid protocol, hateful bigotry, lack of imagination, fear of responsibility, whatever it is that keeps people from doing what needs doing, or else we’re all going to be sitting here for years, stuck in this same damn cycle of inactivity.

All that Althea and Claudia want to do is make things work. Not just for themselves or their jobs, but for anyone else in their lives. The twist here, however, is that they’re not activists. They’re not mavericks, spies, loose cannons or even encyclopedic tech nerds and social justice heroes of the Cory Doctorow variety. They’re just blue-collar workers with a sense of community and a drive to make things possible. This is the kind of outlaw they are: the ones you least expect, because they don’t attract attention to themselves while they’re undoing all the bullshit they’re wading through.

The trick, then, was to figure out who — or what — the enemy was. That took a bit longer to work out, but once I had a rough outline, it became clearer to me: it wasn’t just one conflict, but many. It was the former galactic owners of the waystation and its planet reneging on their promise to leave them alone. It was the waystation’s political and military leaders in constant disagreement with each other and hindering progress. It was upper management refusing to make important choices Because Reasons. It was constant disagreement between those in charge and those they represented.

In other words, a lot like real life over the last couple of years.

And yes, there would be a bit of humor and lightheartedness, to balance it out. The appearance of one comically large and chatty Maine coon cat named Grizelda. The distraction of having large extended families. The deep trust between best friends and the smooth workings of a well-oiled and well-trained team. The silliness of Althea’s shenanigans and the wiliness of Claudia’s not-entirely-legal tech kludges, and their incredibly strong and loving relationship.

Funny, then, that it took me almost a year and a half to realize that this was going to be a Big Story, just like the Bridgetown trilogy! But that realization only helped me refocus on Theadia so I could make it even better. It’s been a super fun story to write and I love working on it. And I hope you enjoy it once I release it out into the world!

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.