This time last year

Source: Makoto Shinkai’s ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’

This time last year, I’d left the (Former) Day Job after what…thirteen or so years?…and took some time off to get my head together. I’ve been thinking about just how frustrated and angry I’d been then, and for how long. The job had effectively cleaved my writing time (and personal time) to almost nil. By the start of 2020 I was barely writing anything worth talking about. I’d fleshed out some story ideas here and there, but I’d barely written any new words at all.

After that time off, I started from the beginning again. I asked myself several questions.

What made me want to write? What stories did I want to tell? What was my writing style? What did I no longer want to write about? Did I really need and want to write what I was currently working on?

And then I just…started writing again. Learning from the beginning again.

It took a few false starts, but I got there eventually. I was aware of my processes now; I knew when something wasn’t working, when something needed more work, when something resonated with me so much that I knew I could see this project to the end. I compared it to other moments in the past: instead of thinking if only I could write like this again, I was thinking this is just like that previous project I enjoyed so much. And I just kept at it.

It’s been a year, and right now I have a full stove with things on many burners: a submission-ready revision of Diwa & Kaffi, the fourth Mendaihu Universe story, a new project based on the work I’d done in those final Day Job Days, and a few possibilities I’m yet to start work on. I’m still working for a replacement Day Job — preferably one in the city that doesn’t maliciously carve away at my cherished writing time — and I’m actively getting in better shape. I’ve been extremely busy, but in a good way. A way that challenges me the way I love to be challenged.

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.

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.

Working on it

The Theadia project is turning out to be a tougher nut to crack than I’d expected, but at least I’ve learned from experience now that I shouldn’t let that bother me too much. I’ve been spending some of my Daily Words playing around with the plot and searching for the right story that needs telling. It’s very similar to the issues I had with Diwa & Kaffi.

So instead of forcing the story into shape against its will, I’m going the alternate, less stressful route: letting it come to me naturally. And given that this is probably the third or fourth time in a row where I’ve encountered this, perhaps this has become my current style of writing and creating. It takes longer, but there are far fewer dead ends to contend with.

In the meantime, I’m letting myself play around with a few other projects, one of which has been on the Spare Oom back burner for ages, just to keep the writing muscles in shape. I’m not taking them entirely seriously — well, I am, but I haven’t assigned any deadlines or hard stops as of yet.

As long as I’m moving forward, yeah?

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!

World building when you’re not an expert

My new project takes place partly on a space waystation, but I will admit that I am certainly no expert in writing hard SF where such things would be normal. I’m pretty sure I’d need to consult a LOT of people just to get all the technical things correct.

But to be honest? That’s the least of my problems, because that’s not what the story is about. Theadia will be told from the point of view of two of its citizens who live on the bustling waystation, which has its own city, suburbs and cultures. They’re just two working class kids who aren’t all that interested in knowing how to fly a station-to-planetside transport because there’s no reason to. It’s just a form of public transportation for them. They’ve got more important things that concern them.

I was partly inspired by the Wayfarers series by Becky Chambers and to a lesser but still influential degree, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. There’s also a bit of Cowboy Bebop and Star Wars: Resistance in there as well, among other things. I liked the idea of a local space station/stargate hub being used not so much as a hard sf thriller but mostly as setting. Like Diwa & Kaffi, it’s more about the people within the station rather than the setting itself.

Of course, I do have the usual rules and regulations to follow, even though they won’t be visible in the story itself. For instance, a ship so big and in geosynchronous orbit with its local planet would of course be incapable of reshaping itself and achieving escape velocity as if it was some Robotech warship. There’s also the matter of keeping the balance of on-ship citizenry and visitor count stable, both physically and economically. I came up with similar House Rules when I wrote the trilogy as well; there are some things that can be done, some that can’t, and some that really shouldn’t. These aren’t arbitrary rules, they just make the fictional society, and the story, run a hell of a lot smoother.

Given the few ideas I have for this story so far, I don’t need to worry too much about the technical details. If I need them, well…that’s where additional research and outside assistance will come in. But for now I’m not going to burden myself with it. Right now I’m more interested in creating that on-ship society, its ‘city’ environs and even its traffic infrastructure. Most of the focus will actually be on the two characters and their friends and family anyway.

Theadia might not contain any zero-g chases or bypassing security in air-free cargo holds, but that’s okay…that’s not the story I’m planning on telling anyway. Our heroes are more fiddle-with-the-data anyway when it comes to things like that. Things that you and I might pull off. And that’s the trick, at least for me: sometimes all you really need to do is enough world building to make it realistic for your characters. The rest is just shiny and cool-looking artifice.

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.