Coming up with ideas really isn’t all that hard. It’s the latching onto one, getting it to germinate, that’s the hard part. I’ve got to have some connection to it, otherwise it’s just a single scene that doesn’t belong anywhere. And I’ve got an old trunk full of those already.
Sometimes those ideas take a hell of a long time to germinate, and that can either be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you look at it. Meet the Lidwells! came to me nearly two years ago, and I’m only working on it now. That was primarily due to the trilogy project taking precedence, but I also wanted to give it a good planning-in-my-head before moving forward with it.
I’ve got a few backburner projects as well, ones that have been simmering for quite a few years. Those are ideas with merit but I wasn’t ready to work on them just yet for one reason or another. I’ve got a few new and fresh ideas as well, ones that I may play around with via 750 Words (like I did with Lidwells) until something concrete comes about.
Is it frustrating, having these stories in various points of stasis? Well, yeah, of course it is! But I’d like to think I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer feel like I MUST WRITE ALL THE BOOKS RIGHT NOW. Once I cleared the table of the Trilogy Project, I found it…actually pretty empty. I’d trunked numerous story ideas over the past fifteen years; ideas that didn’t work, that I’d lost interest in, or just led nowhere. Others I’d turned into blog series. I had maybe three or four Possible Next Projects, tops.
Which also meant that I could afford to come up with a few new possible seeds of ideas that I could nurture down the road. I could let myself play around with the tiniest inklings that passed by. I have to relish when that happens now, because I haven’t had that feeling in a long time. Writers love coming up with scraps and seeing where they go.
It feels great to be fully creating again after years of editing and revision work. It feels even better to let my brain come up with these seeds of ideas and know that I won’t have to wait for ages to get to them.
The upside is that I’ve already gotten a good couple thousand words in on Meet the Lidwells! Most of the text is coming straight from the very rough draft I wrote a few years back, of course, but it’s going in the right direction.
The downside is that I can already see where I’m going wrong. Thankfully I know exactly what it is that’s wrong, and how to fix it.
I’ll be honest — the beginnings of my novels are always a mess. I spend the first couple of chapters knowing what I want to write, but I haven’t quite grasped how I want it to play out. The prose is all over the place as I try out all kinds of different styles on the fly. I’ll plant the seeds of one or two minor plot points that may or may not survive the end result. I may even get a few of the details mixed up.
But hey, that’s what revision and editing is for, right? Once I do figure it all out (which is usually around two or three chapters in), then I have a solid platform for the rest of the novel, and I can clean everything up in those two or three sketchy first scenes. A Division of Souls had at least three wildly different openings before I put all the pieces together and figured out which one works the best. I had a hell of a time trying to figure out how to start The Balance of Light the way I wanted it. Lidwells is no different; once I get into the groove, I’ll be able to build a more solid opening.
Do I wish I could write a perfect opening? Nah. Doing it the way I do is actually part of the fun! It helps me connect with the story on an emotional level; once I’ve done that, then I can reshape the opening to fit that mood. I don’t see it as wasting time and words; I see it as part of the whole exercise. As long as I’m going in the right direction…that’s all that really matters.
One thing I always need to remind myself is that I’m not in a race with other writers to get my work out. Sure, I had that feeling way back in the day, back when I as naive enough to think that my manuscripts were good enough to warrant attention. I thought the turnaround was super-quick, that I’d have my byline and my comp copies in my palms within a few weeks. [Reality hit me pretty quick and hard, then.] And I still get that twitch of envy when I see writers I know personally or online, releasing new works while I’m still languishing.
Every writer gets that feeling. You want to be in the same race as everyone else, wanting to keep up and be One of the Gang. But everyone in that gang is already miles ahead of you, already known to readers, physical copies of books in hand, doing the signings and the readings at the conventions and book stores. It’s enough to make you wonder if you’ll ever catch up.
Well, here’s the thing: it’s not a race. Not unless you want it to be. You might give yourself a hard deadline like I did, to get that book out and away by a specific date, to have that physical copy in your hand (even if it is a galley or an ARC). But you’re not racing the other writers. Far from it.
They’re running just as hard as you are, tripping up at the same points you are, maybe even making it up as they go along like you are. Their race is not about who gets there first across the finish line, or who gets there the fastest. Their race is about finishing the race. To them — and indeed, should be to you as well — this race is a marathon. Running those twenty-six-point-two miles of hard work, revisions, edits, re-edits, re-revisions, meetings, sales plans, working on other projects in the interim, and aiming for that final goal of completion.
In the end, the only race in writing and publishing that a writer should be concerned with is a deadline. I had to remind myself of this for quite a long time, and once I finally got over that, I no longer felt frustrated that I was getting left behind, or annoyed that I was taking far too long to get my own work done.
One of the best ways I learned that is to take part in the writing community. I’m still a solitary writer that hasn’t joined a local writer’s group (and I kind of feel more comfortable that way — that avenue is completely up to you whether you want to follow it or not)…but I talk with other writers online all the time, I’ve met up and become friends with writers both beginner and pro. Once I came to the conclusion that we’re all in the same boat, that we’re all slightly frazzled and overworked but still loving what we’re doing, none of us are truly left behind. A lot of us support each other at all levels, because we know just how hard the job can get.
We’re all running, but we’re all running together.
While doing the Big Edits and the galley edits of my trilogy, I noticed that with each book, I set the main plot’s Point of No Return in the exact middle of the story. Not that it’s necessarily where the one Act ends and another starts; it’s merely a concrete point in the story where enough has happened and the only way out is forward. It’s the point where one or many of the characters face the No Turning Back Now part of their arc.
I don’t even try to do it consciously. I’m aware that it’s one spike of many in the story arc, just like they all are, but I don’t always plan it to be the most important one. Most of the time, it just ends up that way.
The climax of the story is near the end where it should be, of course…but this isn’t the climax I’m talking about. It’s the point where the characters may pause and finally get their bearings and finally truly see just how deeply they’ve embedded themselves. [Out of amusement, I’ve sometimes called it the “oh shit we really are screwed aren’t we” moment.]
And this moment can happen at any time, really. And it can happen numerous times within the span of a book or a series. But there’s usually one true Point of No Return moment. And somehow I’ve figured out where to put it exactly in the middle of my stories!
One of the many preparatory steps I’m taking for the upcoming New Project (Nothing to Do with the Trilogy, Honest) is thinking about new characters. Of the two projects I have on deck, I’ve decided that I’d like to know more about the characters ahead of time, before I get any actual writing done.
I’ve done this before with the trilogy, but for the most part they were in my head. Considering I pretty much knew a lot about them by the time I wrote the three books, I could get away with that. However, these new projects are different. I’d rather not wing it this time. [I mean, I can if I have to…but I’d rather not.]
In this instance I’ll be creating character sheets. Nothing too detailed or intensive, just enough for me to use as reference. I’ve seen many webcomic artists do this; they’ll have an image folder or scrapbook that will have the basic character designs, but will also include fashion photograhy and color palettes (personal styles), celebrity casting (what they look like, facial expressions, different angles, etc), unique physical attributes (hair, piercings, etc), and so on. I did something similar to this for some of my trilogy characters, adding things like their birthdays, current addresses, and so on. I rarely had to pull them out for reference, but they were good to have on hand just in case I’d erred in description somewhere.
I also usually add a map or two as well. I drew a basic layout of Bridgetown early on for reference and it came in quite handy multiple times. I will most likely do the same for one of the two upcoming projects.
It does sound like I’m purposely limiting the amount of pre-work I do. It’s true, I don’t like to give my outlines all that much detail, at least not on a long-term basis. Just enough so I know what to write within the next three or four chapters and a vague idea of the direction of the novel as a whole. The same goes with the characters; the most I’ll do is create a character sheet that will remind me of the basics so I can remain consistent. Essentially, something I can anchor the character to.
There are numerous books and articles out there suggesting how to create characters with depth, and I’ve read many of them. They all have great ideas that will help you create a better novel. I’ve always tended to uses these suggestions as a baseline rather than concrete directions, and that’s worked just fine. There’s no right way to do it other than whatever works for you.
I came up with a mantra in the spring of 1995 when I realized that if I was going to get any serious writing done, I was going to have to stop making excuses not to. Or more to the point, I was going to have to stop procrastinating. I had a lot on my mind that summer…a stagnating long-distance relationship; lots of overdue bills; a really horrible diet of cereal, ice cream, concession stand food, soda, and smokes; jobs that weren’t paying enough for me to actually live on. It’s quite true that life stress is not conducive to the creative mind. At. All.
But I had the use of my girlfriend’s PC that summer, and a hell of a lot of time on my hands when I wasn’t at my theater job. I had a few projects milling about in the back of my head. And I had my radio and my music collection to keep me entertained. All I needed to do was get myself into the groove somehow. If I was going to finally jumpstart this writing gig with any seriousness, I was going to have to go all in. I couldn’t do it half-assed.
Which meant that I had to come up with a daily reminder. And this reminder was written on two index cards in very large letters — one was posted right above my desk, and the other was next to my bed. That way I’d see them every single day, whether I wanted to or not.
This is what they said:
Just DO it. Shut the f*** up and START WRITING ALREADY.
Terse? Maybe. But it did the trick. The only reason for not writing at that time was so I could feel sorry for myself and my pathetic social life and post-college career. I hated feeling that way, and I hated that I knew I was wasting time feeling that way. I had to break the cycle somehow.
Even if that meant working on the small, inconsequential stuff like transcribing my writing from the past ten years. Even if that meant making small notes on scrap pieces of paper while at my job. The main aim here was to create a daily habit out of it. I’d worry about results at a later time. As long as I was doing it and not wishing I was.
I’ll be honest, that’s still my writing mantra, twenty-one years later in 2016. It’s for different reasons, of course. I say that to myself when I’m having a mean case of the Don’t Wannas, or severely distracting myself online, or whatever. I still have my moments of self-doubt (what writer doesn’t?) and wonder if the current project I’m on is worth finishing.
Procrastination and self-doubt are still two of my bitterest enemies, and the only way I know how to defeat them is via the same mantra: just shut the f*** up and DO it.
Juggling between Day Job and Writing Career can be a tricky thing. I’m lucky in that I work from home, which affords me time to listen to music as long and as loud as I like, plus my commute is about twenty feet from my bed and into the next room. But there’s not a lot of time to do much writing work, even during slow times. We both wake up around 6am and start our days at 7:30am. I have a half-hour for lunch at noon, and two fifteen-minute breaks (one in the morning, one in the afternoon). Then there’s the time right after work, where we’ll occasionally head over to the local YMCA for some exercise and getting off our duffs. We’ll have dinner soon after that, when we return.
That gives me about two hours in the evening during the weekdays to work on whatever project I happen to be on. We’ll get into bed around 8:3oish and read for an hour or two before passing out for the night. Like any other writer, I really wish I had more time to work with. But somehow I pull it off.
How do I do it? Well, a few things, really.
Assigned time. My midmorning break (around 9:30am) is when I do my longhand writing. Specifically, I write a daily entry in my moleskine journal. I don’t give myself a subject to write about; it’s just a personal entry of things on my mind at time. It may or may not have anything to do with writing, but as long as I’m writing something, that’s all that matters. The afternoon break (around 2:30pm) is less structured, but it’s there for me to use if need be.
Being conscious of the use of my time. Not gonna lie, I get sucked down the Wikipedia rabbit hole and the cat gif vortex and the Twitter noise just as often as everyone else does. I’m okay with a bit of goofing off now and again; it gives my brain a rest, especially if the Day Job has been stressful. But I’ve also trained myself to shut down the browser as soon as I realize I’m just wasting time. [An unexpected plus is that my reaction time has gotten faster; I’ll waste five minutes instead of fifteen now.]
Being on a roll. Sometimes I’ll get into a groove and not want to stop. Why stop when I can still go? I used to do this all the time with my old Belfry writing habits, and I still do it with the housework, so why not? I’ll get one blog post done, and if I have enough time, I’ll write another one. And if I’m still on that roll, maybe I’ll work on something else. At least until i get tired or get diverted by something more important. The downside is that I might exhaust myself now and again, but it’s a small price to pay. This works out especially well if I’m having a slow day at the Day Job.
Planning out my day. This is where the whiteboard comes in. I’ve made it a point that I want to write two blog posts a week for each site. For the most part I’ve been keeping that, even though some of the entries have ended up going live in the afternoon (like this one) rather than first thing in the morning. [That’s been my own fault lately. Still working on the planning part.]
And of course, deadlines. I haven’t given myself a strict deadline for when I finish editing The Balance of Light, given that this one’s getting a severe surgery as compared to the other two, but I’ve at least told myself that I want it done by the end of the year. This worked out well for the other two books: I’d chosen a specific date at least a month and a half in the future as the drop date and made sure the book was finished at least a week beforehand. This meant that I’d focus on nothing except for the editing, formatting and publishing of the books for that amount of time — this meant that things like the 750 Words would fall by the wayside, that the blog posts might end up a bit scant, and that I’d conveniently forget to work on any other projects. But the payoff was perfect: once the project was considered done, I gave myself a week off to relax and play catch-up with everything I’d put aside. By the time I’m back to normal, I’m ready to go on the next project.
But what about the Writing/Day Job juggling? That’s a good question. What I’m trying to say here is that looking at it in terms of Day Job versus Must Do All The Things isn’t exactly the right way to do it. The trick is to already know that you only have a finite amount of time. I only have about two hours of free time in the evening which I can fully dedicate to whatever writing project I’m on. In those two hours, I’m going to do my damnedest to keep myself focused on it. And during my Day Job hours, if the pace is slow enough that I can get away with it, I’ll work on something quick and easy like Daily Words, or write part of a blog post. Otherwise I’ll stick with the scheduled assignments during my free time. In turn, that lightens up my end-of-day load of work that still needs doing.
Two things that are Totally Truewhen an author sees the galley/ARC/final result of their book:
–A mixture of elation and pride. More often than not this is a project that has taken far too long for our liking, but still the author has a bit of a squee when they see it all bound in paper or in final ebook form. Look at that! I made a thing! A professional thing! A thing others will (hopefully) enjoy!
–The turnaround time from the above excitement to worry and mortification when typos and other mistakes reveal themselves when you’re checking out how pretty it all is: +/- two hours.
Most of this weekend was spent working on the formatting of A Division of Souls, which was easier than I’d expected it to be. Come to find out, most of it entailed highlighting blocks of text and adjusting a lot of Settings, which I do all the time anyway. Saturday afternoon I cleaned up the end matter (glossary, acknowledgements, etc) and other easy bits.
Sunday was spent doing a lot of Style changing — primarily my old habit of hitting Tab at the start of every paragraph to a permanent 0.3″ paragraph start instead. Ctrl+A was my best friend through most of this.
Creating a table of contents was shockingly easy. Just a bit of bookmarking and hyperlinking, et voila! I’m done.
There was also a good half hour of dithering about line spacing…single, 1.15, or 1.5? Single looked too crowded to me, and though I liked 1.15 myself, A. (who reads more ebooks than I do) felt otherwise. So 1.5 it was.
So by late afternoon, I was ready. It was time.
Uploaded the file to the Meatgrinder at Smashwords (their quite apt name for the software that checks for errors and also translates it into multiple formats). Waited for the scanning and the translating. Waited for the email letting me know if there were any errors.
At 6:52pm PT, I got the email; no errors, everything was groovy, and it was now on its way to being available at all fine ebook retailers. I’ve also added a ‘Buy Stuff’ tab up at the top of this blog to make it all official and stuff.
So yeah. I can now finally say I’m a pro. Go me!
Oh, and the typos and mistakes? Thankfully just a few:
–Apparently epub doesn’t like accentuation marks in the glossary, so I’ll have to use caps instead.
–An event I’d decided to rename, that got missed a total of three times. A bit of Find/Replace did the job.
–A few places where the carriage returns didn’t take. Easy enough to clean up.
One thing I didn’t expect to revisit while writing the new MU story is to visualize the scenes I’m writing based on a specific song.
I used that sparingly during the original writing of the Bridgetown Trilogy; there are very few scenes where, at least in my mind, a specific track should be playing. The final scene of A Division of Souls having Failure’s “Daylight” playing. A scene of Alec Poe driving down a highway with Supreme Beings of Leisure’s “Strangelove Addiction” playing. And so on. I never mentioned them in the book outright, of course. The scene was never based specifically on the song, it was only background that happened to fit.
Come 2015, I’m writing the second chapter of the new story, in which a character has stepped into Light and is soaring over the extended metropolitan sprawl of Bridgetown, sensing the presence of everyone he flies past as he heads towards Mirades Tower. I’m about a page in, when Dot Allison’s “Message Personnel” pops into my head. I play the song through with its peaks and valleys of psychedelic ambiance, and the next thing I know…the entire rest of the scene plays out crystal clear in my head, just waiting to be written.
I haven’t written a scene in that manner since…well, since I wrote the Infamous War Novel almost entirely in that fashion, nearly thirty years ago.
I found myself doing it again just the other day, as I was writing the start of the new chapter while flying home from London. The in-flight music selection happened to include Led Zeppelin’s recent remaster of Physical Graffiti, which meant I got to listen to my favorite LZ track, “Kashmir”, in all its epic glory. I’d used the song in the IWN, so it was to some surprise that the lurching bombast of the track somehow lent itself to the scene I was writing that moment, in which another character has ascended towards a higher aspect of the kiralla (a dragonlike form meant to be one of the highest forms of spirit in physical form), and she’s reveling in the fact that she’d ascended all on her own without training or ritual. The track screams BIG, and so does the scene.
It’s kind of weird to revisit this old writing process of mine that helped me finish my very first novel when I was a teenager, especially when I wasn’t expecting it. I’m not planning to lean on this style exclusively, though now that I know it still works to some extent, I’m not exactly going to avoid it either. Whatever works to get the scene done how I’m visualizing it.
Some of us writers tend to think of writing as separate from work and play, like it’s a third piece of the balancing-your-life puzzle rather than filing it under one or the other. I’m one of those, purely out of semantics. I think of ‘work’ as my day job. I think of ‘play’ as goofing around online, watching TV or going somewhere with A., or some form of entertainment. Writing?
Well, writing, at least for me, is a synergy between the two. It’s work — hella hard work sometimes — because my brain isn’t just thinking about the part of the story I’m telling at that very moment, but also thinking about the story’s end result so many as-yet-unwritten pages in the future. At the same time it’s an incredibly fun process, because I’m creating something and I’m proud of my ability to do so, especially after all these years of practice. To that end, I end up thinking of it almost as a second job, albeit one that I enjoy doing.
The trick, at least lately, is to remind myself not to sit on my ass all day long, sun up to sun down. There’s a life out there, outside of the nonstop chugging of my mind gears. That’s why we make it a point to hit the local YMCA a few times a week and take long walks on weekends. But I also need to remember that not everything on TV is crap. We’ve been really enjoying Wolf Hall on PBS the last few weeks, there’s always another Attenborough or Burns documentary to watch, and Canada and the UK seem to have a wealth of great mystery shows that we can stream.
Back in the early 00s (aka the Belfry Years), I had to remind myself to put down the writing and go out and play now and again. This is why I went on road trips to Boston and elsewhere, took the occasional night off to watch The X-Files, check out my current stash of comics, or read that new novel I’d just picked up. Still a bit sedentary to be sure, and I was still working out plot ideas in the back of my brain, but I made sure I didn’t become a hermit.
Nowadays I’ve made it a point to get up during break times at work; I’ll walk down to the lobby to check the mail or get that load of laundry. I’ll watch an episode of Murdoch Mysteries with A before heading up back to write for an hour or so. I’ll listen to my mp3 player and think about plot ideas while walking a half hour on the treadmill at the Y. I’ll still sneak in some writing whenever I can, but not entirely at the expense of living a life outside of writing.
It’s a tricky balance to maintain, and as always, there’s no set-in-stone way to go about it. It’s all about whatever works for you personally.