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.

Nearing the Finish Line

My first three books — the Bridgetown Trilogy — took so damn long for me to finish, clean up and get out into the world that six years later, it still feels kind of weird when I find myself coming close to the end of new projects in a much shorter span of time. I definitely felt it with Meet the Lidwells! and In My Blue World; how could I have possibly turned these novels around so quickly? I must be doing something wrong! These can’t be good if I worked this fast on them! I tend not to listen to that particular voice all that much, to be honest. Heh.

Diwa & Kaffi took me a bit longer, as I purposely took my time to get that one right, and I’m still shopping that one out. (I promise, I’ll get it out there one way or another.) And two of my current projects are inching closer to their respective ends as well. Have I told you about them? Not really! I’ve been hinting about them for ages, partly because that’s my one quirk: I have a terrible habit of tweeting/blogging/posting about a seemingly great idea that ends up getting trunked or put aside out of frustration…aka my Best Laid Plans stories. After a while I felt it was a bit more professional (and less promise-breaking) if the details remained on the QT until I felt confident enough that they’d see completion and potential publication.

So, what are they? Glad you asked! Because one is fast approaching Act 3 and the other is well into it and nearing its climactic scenes, and my confidence is high on both. Here’s a quick peek:

The one I’ve been referring to as Project A is currently entitled Queen Ophelia. It’s a story about a man who, upon his father’s death, finds that his estranged mother is not the human he was told she’d been: she is in fact a part-demon part-fae queen of a world filled with magic and war. He learns that he has not only inherited her magical blood but must help her defeat an unexpected enemy. During his adventures and travels, he learns more about the demon and fae world than he’d ever expected. This one’s theme is all about finding comfort and acceptance in others, and accepting oneself. This one was inspired by a dream I’d had in May, wrote out the entire outline that next morning, and have been writing on the 750 Words site since September. [Surprisingly, this one does not have a playlist. I may need to rectify that.]

Project B, meanwhile, is currently entitled Theadia, and it’s a story that popped into my head during my last days at the Former Day Job. It’s about two young women coders living on a space waystation who become embroiled in a border war, useless upper management and terrible engineering. As I’d said yesterday on my Twitter feed: “the source of conflict isn’t just an antagonistic world threat. It also includes the conflict of active avoidance: the ‘not my job’, the ‘it has to be this way because reasons’ and ‘it’s too expensive to make better’. [The main characters] refuse to fall into that avoidance trap. Winning because they stepped up, not because they’re superpowered or invincible.” It’s super geeky fun and doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, but it’s right up there with IMBW as one of the most enjoyable stories I’ve written. Oh, and this is the one that features the Maine coon cat, Grizelda!

[There is indeed a Project C, and it’s what I’ve been referring to as MU4, aka the fourth book in the Mendaihu Universe. I’m taking my own sweet time with this one because there’s a ton to do. Suffice it to say, the story takes place in Bridgetown seventy years after the trilogy, and focuses on how belief systems change and evolve, for better or for worse, and how different they become the further they get from their creators’ original plans and intentions. And yes, a few Trilogy characters do show up!]

…so yeah, that’s what I’ve been up to over the last several months. Queen Ophelia and Theadia should be done soon enough, and they both definitely need a lot of revision work, but I’m quite proud of both of them already. It’s been quite the trip and I’ve had a blast writing them all. In the process I’ve taught myself perseverance, better focusing, and alternate ways of problem-solving. And I’m really looking forward to getting these out your way as soon as I can.

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.