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)

Year’s End View V

First things first: END OF YEAR BOOK SALE!

Want some free e-books? My novels are currently available for free over at Smashwords until the end of the year! That’s all three books in the Bridgetown TrilogyMeet the Lidwells!, and In My Blue World, available in all formats. Go on, you know you want them!

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I’ve been thinking, along with everything else, about where I want my writing career to go in 2022. I haven’t self-published anything new since In My Blue World in 2019, and I need to catch up on my plan of (at least) one self-pubbed project a year. I’ll give myself a break, though, considering what the pandemic has done to the publishing arena over the last couple of years. My initial plan of submitting Diwa & Kaffi to agents and publishers was put on the sidelines because of it, so I chose to use the ensuing wait time wisely by writing Queen Ophelia and Theadia. One (or both? or all three?) may be released in e-book form sometime next year, depending on where we are in revision and cover art.

Meanwhile, back in November I joked to A that maybe for next year’s NaNoWriMo I should write a Christmas romcom. (A did kind of give me an ‘oookay, where did this come from?’ look, but come on, romances are often a guaranteed seller no matter how much nonbelievers want to make fun of them.) I’ve actually been meaning to read more romances anyway to expand my reading and writing horizons. This in turn kicked off an immersive reading binge of romances and romance/mysteries, and I’m thinking this is indeed a viable avenue for me, not to mention another genre for me to read so I’m not stuck in the same reading groove. We both found Sarah Morganthaler’s Moose Springs, Alaska series really good fun, and it also has excellent doggo content. This kind of setup seems to resonate with my style of humor and plot, so I’m thinking this might be a good start.

This, of course, led to another semi-related conversation about pen names. I tend to think my given name is pretty plain and easy to pronounce (though I’ve heard my last name mangled many times over the years), but I’ve often thought about toying with a pen name anyway. I know of a few writers who’ve used them for one reason or another, whether it’s to revive a flagging career, kickstart a new one, or to keep different styles and genres separate. I do have a few thoughts about this that I may toy with in the new year. In a way I kind of like the idea, considering that I’ve put said career on pause over the last couple years. Starting off fresh across the board does have a certain appeal.

There’s something to be said about creating a new self-image, especially when you’ve been thinking about it over a long period of time and it’s something that’s long overdue. This is another one of the paradoxes in my life: while I might be a creature of comforting habits, there’s also this consistent undercurrent that I need to change things up now and again, especially when it’s desperately needed.

And in my writing career, while I’m happy that I’ve been coming up with these new stories, many that I’m proud of, I still get the feeling that I’m limiting myself somehow. Whether it’s by self-censoring or avoidance, I know when it happens because that’s when I get irritated with my work. Why am I writing all these non-action scenes? Why am I avoiding writing conflict? Why am I finding it so hard to face those scenes? It’s that paradox: I feel comfortable avoiding the conflict, but I know that does not make a good story.

I kind of blame writing Diwa & Kaffi for this, really. That project, while near and dear to my heart, was partly an exercise in writing conflict that specifically wasn’t based on protagonists and antagonists. The conflict in that story is within: learning to trust oneself and others, and learning how to believe in oneself. This in turn kind of skittered my own life into an unexpected direction: I realized these were conflicts I was avoiding in my own life. Writing that kind of story is one thing, but dealing it in reality is quite another. And it took me a while to realize just how badly I was limiting myself, not just as a writer but as a person.

While writing Theadia and Queen Ophelia this year, I chose to face that. I prepped myself by having a relatively strong outline I could work from, but I had to learn to trust myself with these stories. Let them go where they needed to go, even if they went in unexpected directions. This wasn’t just the “steadily increasing the volume” action style I used for the Bridgetown Trilogy…this was about immersing myself in these stories. Putting myself into them, but also letting the characters shine as much as possible. While they’re still a bit of a pre-revision mess, they’re probably the strongest stories and the most realistic characters I’ve written. I trust these stories implicitly enough that revision will only make them shine even brighter.

Which brings me back to the theme of this whole series of posts: I’ve been running in rough draft mode for far too long. Sure, there are moments in my life, professional and personal, where I’ll shine when my strengths are at their peak, but everything else definitely needed a fuckton of work. And that work is what I’d done over the last year and a half during this weird pandemic season. And I think, finally, I’m ready to emerge in a much better edition of myself.

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?

Writing: Coming Back from Sick Days

On the plus side, I received my second COVID vaccine shot on Thursday morning, so I am up to date! I no longer need to worry about if or when I’d ever get them taken care of! (A has already gotten her first shot and will be getting the follow-up at the end of this month.) We’ll still be wearing masks until further notice, of course, but we’re cool with that.

On the negative side, the side-effects did a number on my by Thursday afternoon. Like the first shot, I started feeling the brain fogginess and the lack of energy. This time out, however, I’d also started getting full-body aches. Like EVERYWHERE. My fingers hurt. My eyes hurt. Everything hurt. Somehow a migraine slipped in there as well. All told, it wasn’t a sharp you need to see a doctor pain, but just complete okay you’ve been up for ninety-three hours you really need to sleep now exhaustion. I even had a slight fever. Which meant that Friday was spent here in Spare Oom doing nothing except listening to new music releases and maybe watching some videos. [Thankfully it started going away by Friday night and by Saturday I felt totally fine. Invigorated, even.]

And as I usually reserve the weekends for catching up on emails, doing errands and cleaning house, I didn’t have much time to do any actual writing work that needed doing. This means that I’m now about five days behind on finishing this latest Diwa & Kaffi revision and that’s bugging the hell out of me right now.

See, my problem is that I always feel guilty when I take a sick day from writing. I’m always thinking, ‘Come on…you’d just be sitting on your butt listening to music. Don’t be a slacker.’ I can remember many times back in the Belfry days when I thought this and it never worked out the way I wanted. Instead of getting a thousand words done, I’d get maybe a hundred, play a few FreeCell games, give up, and spend the rest of the evening in bed reading comic books. So this time out, I figured why go through the same faulty reasoning? I finished early on Friday, got in my jammies, and continued my reading Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries books. (I’m rereading the first five so I can immediately jump into the new one that just dropped a few days ago.) Best decision I ever made.

SO! What this means is that today, Monday, I am not catching up, but picking up where I left off. It’s best that I don’t try to do everything all at once, because That Way Lies Madness. Instead, I just start back in on the work, and go as far as the day takes me. Whether it’s just a partial or multiple chapters doesn’t matter…as long as I’m heading in the right direction.

Seems as though I did in fact learn from my mistakes over the years!

Keeping the Pace

Image courtesy of K-On!

I’m usually good at this, but every now and again I get ahead of myself and the result ends up looking like a half-assed mess of a rush job. Which means I need to do some serious revision to calm it down and stretch it out.

This time I’m talking about the pacing of the story. I’m usually quite aware of how fast or slow a scene needs to be when I’m writing it. I visualize it like I’m making a movie, but I also see it like the deliberate pacing of a song or a musical passage. I like a slow dramatic reveal, but I also like a super-dense action sequence, and each of them needs to have a specific pace. Like movies and music, it’s not just the words that tell the story, but how it’s told.

I used this multiple times with In My Blue World for each character. For example, most of Krozarr’s scenes are slow (but not glacial) and extremely deliberate because that’s how his own mind works; he’s been put in a situation he hates but has to endure, so he takes every action and thought at a pace that keeps him from losing control…and this is ends up being his downfall. Allie, on the other hand, is always, always moving, so her scenes are often frenetic — and when she stops, things around her are not good.

I love writing character scenes like this, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to be able to tell a story with little nonverbal accents like that. It’s got to be done right, though, and it can’t be a constant thing or it’ll be too obvious and detract from the story.

I say this because I’m doing yet another revision of Diwa & Kaffi and the other day I discovered that an extremely important scene, one that changes the course of our two lead characters, was dashed off far too quickly. This is a scene that should have a deliberately slow pace, where they both are hyperaware of each other’s reactions and emotions and do not want to ruin them, and a scene that should end with a bright and happy resolution. Instead, it reads…well, it reads like an outline, really. A zipped-through scene where I mentally made a note to Fix It Later and completely forgot to do so. I’m pretty sure this was a scene where I got overexcited about the idea and forgot to expand on it! I’m a bit embarrassed at how flat the entire scene is, to be honest, so I’m going to need to give it some heavy TLC in the next few days.

This is also why I do multiple rereads when I’m in Revision Mode: I’m not just paying attention to the story or the continuity, I’m also focusing on the pacing. These rereads force me to see where I went too fast, or where I just stumbled and shuffled too slowly. This in turn helps me figure out how I’m going to fix it, whether it’s to rewrite the whole scene, slow it down by expanding it, or deleting the filler to speed it up.

I don’t always catch them right away, but once I do and it’s up to my standards, I’m usually super proud of the result!

BRB, doing some much-needed revision

So yeah, over the last few days I did a Reread What I Have So Far of my current WIPs, which is something I normally do at various points of their production.

I often do this near the start of every project for a few reasons: one, to see if any of it holds up and holds my attention (which yes, both do, yay!), and two, to get a firm grasp on the story and its many moving parts. This second reason is the more important of the two, as it’s my way of establishing continuity.

And let me tell you, my novels ALWAYS start off with the shittiest continuity ever. This is mainly due to me trying things out just to see where they go. This includes character traits and personalities, extended family and friends, time of day, whatever. I used to say I was ‘flailing’ at this point, but I don’t think that’s a good word for it. More like ‘feeling my way’, honestly. After maybe four or so chapters, I’ll do a Reread What I Have So Far and see what works and what needs work. The end result is that Project A is going in an unexpected but fun direction and I’m quite happy about that, but I definitely need to get its continuity under control. Project B, on the other hand, is going a bit slow but the continuity is just fine. Woo, go me!

Added to that, I’ve decided that I’m going to spend a bit more time doing another revision of Diwa & Kaffi, because I’m taking a writing friend’s suggestion to heart: it needs more description. Not a lot, but after doing a Reread after distancing myself from it a little bit, those bare spots definitely stick out a lot more now. There aren’t going to be any major revision issues with this one, no inserts or deletions…this one’s just to give it a bit more needed meat to it.

So yeah, this is going to be my job in the next couple of weeks. My Writer Brain of course is a bit irritated because I won’t get any new words out for a while, but it’s the price I have to pay. I’ll get back to those new words soon enough.

First Chapter Flailing

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more time for luck

Hopefully this go-round will not be as stressful…

SO! The other night I finally finished the latest revision go-round for Diwa & Kaffi and I think I did a pretty good job. So now what?

Now I read it again.

Yeah, writing a novel and prepping it for submission or publication (self or otherwise) does in fact include multiple rereads of the same damn words you’ve been reading over the last few months. It’s no wonder some of us start questioning if our work is worth anything or just a pile of crap.

The last round was to fix some major prose issues I’d had (and to write that ‘scene goes here’ scene, natch) and anything that stood out that needed work. This current round is going to be the Nitpicky Grammar and Word Choice Round, and I’m hoping it’ll be much smoother and quicker. Things like verb tenses, pronouns, repetitions, and so on. Spot-fixes.

Oh — and I need to see if I can find someone to check my Tagalog. I use it sparingly and there’s about 25 or so phrases or sentences out of two hundred some-odd pages, so it’s more about just making sure I used the best word choice and didn’t just hazard a guess by using Google Translate. [Which, y’know, I actually did as a placeholder until I get someone to help.]

Then I can finally submit it!

Meanwhile…

I have about five more chapters’ worth of revision to go before I can call this second go-round of Diwa & Kaffi done. I’m still on schedule, hitting about one chapter per evening while we watch British gardening shows. [They’re quite soothing after a long day at work, and perfect background noise for my writing sessions…although I do get occasionally distracted!]

I know I’ve talked about what The Next Project will be, but right now I’m not thinking too much about it. All my focus has been on revision, and the next step will be submission research. Right now if feels right for me to dedicated as much time and attention on this project.

In the past this would have bothered me…the fears of running out of ideas and falling out of practice, mainly. Over the years, though, I’ve realized that these fears will only manifest if I let them. I’ve cleared the table of nearly every story I’d put in backburner status, holding onto maybe two or three. They’ll be there when I come back to them. And if they no longer hold my interest, well…I’ll come up with something else eventually. I’m not worried.

Part of this comes with having done a reread of My Work to Date. I’ve reread all three books in the Bridgetown Trilogy as well as Meet the Lidwells over the last few months. It does kind of blow my mind that I’ve already self-published five books and I’m about to submit my sixth to a publisher, all within the space of four years. That’s a hell of a lot more productivity than I ever thought I’d have, to be honest.

So if I have a bit of a dry spell after D&K is out and away, I’m not going to worry too much. As long as I practice.

Yet More On Editing and Revision

On average, I say I go through about three to five versions of each novel I write before I call it done or ready for submission. I always write chronologically from start to finish, and only rarely do I write a scene ahead of time. I’ll take each completed version and revise the same way. The only difference here is that I’ll also read the entire thing on my e-reader at night, multiple times, during the revision process. I started doing this with my trilogy for a few reasons: one, to connect with the novel as closely as I can, and to become aware of what works, what doesn’t, what’s fine, and what needs adjustment.

However, one of the more interesting things I’ve noticed while editing and revising Diwa and Kaffi is how often I’ve been shifting scenes. It’s rare for me to take a scene from, say, Chapter Twenty-Two and move it back a month earlier in the story chronology to Chapter Seventeen. And I’ve done this at least three times already this time out! This did not happen with Meet the Lidwells and maybe only once with In My Blue World.

This is the magic of editing, same as with filmmaking; a strong scene that’s out of place in one part of the timeline might fit perfectly (with a few minor changes) somewhere else within the story. It’s the part of storytelling where the writer becomes aware of not just the plot but the pace and the flow. Sometimes it’s better to state my point once, strongly, rather than vaguely and repeatedly. I found these misplaced scenes work better as previous scene extensions, primarily because it makes that previous scene stronger and thus more memorable.

And in turn, this gives me the purpose to reread the whole thing again, once the scenes are in their new places. That particular go-round will not just look for any additional issues I may need to fix, but to make sure the flow and the mood are to my liking.

I suppose this could pull me into a never ending cycle of edit-revise-read-etc., but I think I’ve done this long enough to know when it feels finished to me. When it feels less like a project and more like a book I’m enjoying reading, then I’ve done my job correctly.