The downside to having a full schedule, especially when multiple social events are added to it, is that physical and mental exhaustion (and maybe illness) can sometimes kick in, screwing things up even worse. Right now I’m trying to fight off a sore throat and exhaustion from too many things going on over the last few week.
That’s probably the best time for me to remind myself: It’s okay to take a day or two off from writing, you know. Or even more importantly: It’s also okay to call in sick to the Day Job now and again…that’s what your sick days are for. Between my stubborn will to keep to my writing schedule and my Catholic guilt for not letting my coworkers down, I can be my own worst enemy sometimes.
Sometimes all I want to do is play an entire afternoon of PC card games, watch silly cat videos, and noodle around with my mp3 collection. Is that too much to ask?
Well, no, not really. I’m not on a strict writing deadline. I can afford a day off from the Day Job now and again. As long as I don’t make it a habit. I can — and should — take a day or two off from reality now and again. I’ll be honest, sometimes I’m jealous of those people who spend the entire afternoon binge-watching TV series or playing video games. Why shouldn’t I be able to take a day off as well?
As long as I get back on track once I’m recharged, right?
I know, I know, I’ve blogged about this before, but it’s always worth repeating, because we writers are often our own worst enemies.
Sometimes I get so into the groove of writing or revising one of my projects that I just keep going for weeks on end, and let other things fall by the wayside. Which is fine, especially if I really want to make a significant dent in my progress. Thing is, sometimes I do this for a little too long, and I’ll either burn out or I’ll lose track of other important things.
So this past Saturday, instead of doing any writing, we went on a short road trip down the coast to Half Moon Bay for brunch and a little bit of shopping, and followed it up with watching the first two Star Wars prequels. We hadn’t seen The Phantom Menace since it came out, and neither of us had seen Attack of the Clones. [Our post-movie thoughts: TPM had promise but suffered from horrifically bad dialogue and lifeless acting; AotC was miles better and actually quite enjoyable, if overlong and with a few questionable plot choices. We plan on watching Revenge of the Sith sometime this week. Noted, we’re watching these for a panel we’ve devised for BayCon in a few weeks!]
Taking a day off from writing is always a good choice, for multiple reasons. One, every now and again it feels good not to have to worry about hitting a self-imposed deadline or word count. I’m allowed a fun day off now and again, right? Two, this is a perfect time for me to switch from Writer/Editor Brain over to Reader Brain. Time to kick back, enjoy a story. Be moved or inspired by a novel or movie. Three, I get to be social with other people, including my wife. Four, it reminds me that even though I might find the writing process thrilling and immensely enjoyable, there are other things out there that are equally as enjoyable. Like going to the local zoo!
I think I’ve managed to get the the point in my life where I’m okay if I take a day off now and again. Writer that I am, I’ll most likely still think about whatever I’m working on, but in a passive way, making mental notes for later. It’ll still be there when I get back in a day or so.
I’ve been writing the first complete rough draft of In My Blue World in short daily bursts of around a thousand words on 750words.com over the last month and change, and I’m actually kind of impressed at how far I’ve gotten in such a short time. After writing various disconnected scenes earlier in the year, this is my first start-to-finish attempt. There’s still a lot more to go, new and old scenes inserted, as well as revision, but I’m quite happy with it so far. If I plan this out correctly, I might have a new book to push by the time Worldcon rolls around!
Meanwhile, here’s Take 2 of the opening of the story. Hope you enjoy it!
I’d been looking forward to this vacation for months, and now that it was here, it occurred to me that maybe I should have been better prepared for it. I had on the wrong pair of hiking boots and my feet were aching something fierce, and they we had a mile to go before we reached the cabin. I’d also made the mistake of taking the newer backpack, which ended up being slightly bigger than expected, and its corners were digging into my kidneys.
Not that I was going to let all that ruin their time at our grandmother’s cabin, of course. Once we got there, we could kick off their shoes, relax in one of the deep chairs on the open porch, and do absolutely nothing at all. After four months of dealing with online clients and impassive management, it was high time for me to forget about the goings-on in the world. Me and my sisters had planned this trip to the cabin since late last year, and now that time was here, and I wasn’t going to let anything ruin it.
The path loomed ahead of us, a slow but seemingly unending incline heading up the side of the mountain. To one side were the steeper foothills, and to the other was a gentle slope downwards to the large lake in the valley. Even though I should be watching my step and keeping an eye out for any unexpected animals popping out of the brush, I couldn’t help but glance leftwards to the lake. I’d been camping down there as well in the past, spending hours in the water, swimming with her family and friends. We’d be making multiple trips down there in the next few days.
Grandma’s cabin, on the other hand, was equally as fascinating. About halfway up the mountain, the path leveled off at a meadow, with a few wooden cabins lining the edge of it, just inside the tree line. There was always something mysterious up there. Grandma Patricia always kept weird things there, things from her old life as a hunter. She’d taught all three of us girls, showing us how to catch, clean and cook fish and fowl and other things that ran around these deep woods. We knew how to survive in the wilderness for the next few weeks.
That tear in the universe, though…that was definitely unexpected.
“Dianaaaaa…” Katie whined, dramatically dragging my name out. “Are we there yet?” She made a production out of slogging up the final hill towards the meadow, dragging her feet and hanging her head. She hung onto her boyfriend Greg as if he was the last shred of life force left in her. Greg said nothing, but I was sure his eyes were rolling right then.
“Almost,” I said.
“You are so lazy,” Allie laughed, hitching up her backpack and darting up the hill with a renewed burst of energy.
“Stay close!” I called out, but it was no use. When my youngest sister set her mind to it, there was nothing to hold her back. In the process I sped up my pace to catch up. Katie responded with another groan and trudged along. “Allie, how many times do I–”
“Oh, wow…” Allie had suddenly stopped short. “What the heck is that?”
My heart jumped, thinking she’d just found a dead animal, or worse, a sick animal, and sped up to join her. I sidled up next to her and stepped out just a tiny bit ahead, her hand out just in case. “What did you see?”
She pointed in a vague direction of the path ahead. “That! What is that?”
“Where? I don’t know where you’re–”
“That… shiny thing.”
I glanced up the path again, and sure enough, she could see something flashing. Something small but bright. A reflection of sunlight against something, perhaps? Even Katie and Greg had stopped to take a look at this point, and neither was quite sure what they were looking at.
“That’s too bright for a reflection,” Greg said. “Unless it’s a mirror.”
Katie shook her head. “That doesn’t look like a mirror. That–”
Her words were drowned out, as the air as torn in two.
The point of light sputtered and sparked to life, becoming as bright as the sun. I shielded my eyes and swore, blinking away tears and pulling my sisters back. The point of light began to grow; it expanded from a point to a line; a thick line of light, dripping with god knew what kind of plasma energy. And it wasn’t a smooth expansion, either. It was jagged, as if it was hacking away at the air and hitting resistance. Each time it ripped upwards, another growl of thunder filled the air. It expanded until it was human height, and stopped.
The silence was terrifying.
Then the girl stepped through the tear, screaming unrecognizable words in a strange accent. She held a glowing sword in her right hand and a thread of green light in her left palm.
“Ah!” the girl cried. “Krozarr!”
The wisp of light in her left hand burst into a bright green sphere, and she pushed against the tear. Pushed down on it with all her might. She growled more words that we couldn’t understand. The tear responded with just as much resistance, though it was no longer thunder… it sounded like heavy boulders sliding against each other.
Finally, with a final push, she closed the tear she’d just made and all was silent once more. The girl shook the globe of light out of her hand and it dissipated. The tip of her sword dropped to the ground. She stood there, panting from exhaustion.
She turned around, and saw all of us, watching her.
One of my favorite things so far in writing In My Blue World has been creating the rules of magic in this universe. It’s very similar to the process I used when I wrote the trilogy, and it asked the following questions:
What kind of magic do I want my characters to use?
Why would they use it?
What are the limits of its use?
Sounds simple, yes? But the trick here was to remember: every use of magic must have its reason, and it must have its balance. In the trilogy, every time Denni used some kind of psychic force, she had to do it for a reason (usually to protect others), and it had its balancing effect (Saisshalé would respond in kind). This was to show that there was always a price to pay for their actions.
For In My Blue World, I essentially follow the same rules: Zuzannah (aka Zuze) comes from a universe where magic is a natural occurrence and is used in everyday life. What kind of magic do I want her to use? She uses this magic energy equally as a creative and destructive force; one of her abilities is to make ‘a tear in the weave’ of the multiple universes so she can jump between them, but for every tear, she must also ‘reweave’ it. Why would she use it? She uses it to temporarily escape from a stronger foe. She also uses it to return and face him once more, when she is more prepared. What are the limits of its use for her? Weave-tearing is an extremely rare ability and uses up a hell of a lot of power in the process. She only uses it when absolutely necessary. The level and process of magic she’d used in her initial escape was so high and unfocused that it rendered her unconscious for two days.
Using these rules helps me focus on how the plot should unfold. When she’s in the reality of our other characters, her magic is still there but it works differently. When she returns to her own universe, her original powers return. The other characters are also given the same rules: they are introduced to this magic as well, but with their own costs specific to them.
This is why I say that this kind of worldbuilding is often my favorite part of writing a novel. It’s not just about coming up with neat ideas that I can play around with throughout the novel — though that is a major plus and a hell of a lot of fun — it’s about laying the groundwork for how everything works. It’s a balance in and of itself, and quite often it suggests more of the plot than you initially expect.
Speaking of calling it, I’m putting an end to my ongoing test of whether or not I can write a novel longhand. It just doesn’t seem to be working out the way I’d like. I’ve tried it with at least three projects over the past couple of years, and if I’ve learned anything, it’s this:
I write longhand much slower than I type.
I haven’t tested my typing speed, but I know it’s at least 70 wpm, if not faster. [This doesn’t include my frequent misspellings; apparently the word “available” is the hardest one for me to type fast. Thanks to my Day Job for pointing that out.] I’ve never written longhand fast, because if I went any quicker it would be illegible shorthand.
I judge the pace of my novels as I write them. When I get into a writing flow, I connect with the pace of the story. I connect with the fast action scenes and the deliberately slow dramatic scenes. I’ve written novels on the PC for almost twenty years now, so I’ve gotten used to this process. And because I write longhand so much slower, I have trouble adjusting to the flow of the story. I’ve attempted this multiple times with a handful of projects, and each time it’s lasted maybe a few months before I give up and restart the whole thing on MS Word.
I’ve been thinking maybe this might be one of the reasons why I’ve been having so much trouble with the Apartment Complex story, and why I’ve been having no trouble at all with In My Blue World. I started noticing it again when restarted Can’t Find My Way Home the other night. I was frustrated and straining trying to write it in my notebook, but as soon as I restarted it on Word, everything started flowing seamlessly.
So. Does this mean I’ll give up longhand? For novel projects, yes. I’m still using it for my personal journal and other mini-projects, but for now, my novel writing will remain on the PC or on the laptop.
As mentioned on Wednesday, the Apartment Complex project (and by extension, the College Campus story, as they’re both in the same universe) have been put on the back burner. Not trunked, just put aside for now. I’ll get back to them sooner or later.
So, what’s the difference between trunking a project and putting it on hiatus? Well, for me, anyway, trunking is when I’ve all but made my peace with it and given up. It can be for any reason, really: loss of interest, failure to find any kind of strong plot, or growing dissatisfaction with the project overall. I’m okay with those outtakes doing little more than just taking up space on the bookshelf next to my desk. Every now and again I’ll think about them, but I won’t do any more writing on it.
But what about putting projects on the back burner? There’s many reasons for that as well. I don’t want to give up on them, not just yet. They still show promise, they just need a hell of a lot more work than I’ve given them. More often than not I put them on hiatus because I’m stuck. I did this with The Balance of Light, and I’ve done it with a few other projects as well. I need to distance myself from the project for a bit so I can get a clearer head. Maybe I’m diving far too deep into the project and I’ve lost direction.
Or worse, maybe it’s that I’ve got some really cool ideas for it, with a lot of nothing in between. That’s the main problem with the AC project.
How does one make this decision, whether to put it aside or to put it away?
I suppose it’s different for every writer. Personally, if every moment feels more like a chore and I’ve lost all excitement about it, chances are I should trunk it. I’ve trunked stories that at one time I really wanted to write, but the spark just isn’t there anymore.
On the other hand, if every moment feels like a chore but I still think the idea is worth working on, I’ll put it aside. I’ve found over the years that these projects fall into one of two columns: either A) I just don’t have the emotional and/or intellectual energy to dedicate to it, or B) The story is far from coherent in my head. The Balance of Light was in column A, while AC is in column B.
If I’m at either point, it’s best for me to back away and get my shit together.
Either way, it’s moved to the ‘Backburner’ subfolder on my PC. I’ll get back to it soon enough. Sometimes it’ll take a few months, sometimes it’ll take years.
On Tuesday evening I finally had a breakthrough with the Apartment Complex story!
Two, to be exact! One, I have a title for it! Though I’m not sharing it just yet… it’s a special word in the conlang of this story that means ‘bonded friend’ and ties in with the main theme of the story. I’m going to play around with it, tweak the spelling and the pronunciation, double-check it with Google Translate to make sure it isn’t a word in another language, and reveal it when it’s ready.
Secondly, on the same evening, I finally sussed out what style the story needs. That had been the main hang-up all this time; I knew I was doing it wrong, but it took me multiple tries to figure out which style was right for it. And ironically, it’s the same style I used in the trilogy — rich in texture, world-building and characterization. It’s definitely an ensemble piece; given the theme, it kind of has to be. SO! Now that I know how to write this damn thing, I can forge ahead!
I have to say, I do love it when I get those breakthrough moments. Getting to that point can be the biggest pain in the ass ever, but once I hit that moment, it’s worth all that hard work.
Meanwhile, the Apartment Complex story is slowly — finally — taking shape. I’m trying not to give away too much, for fear that it’ll blow up in my face once more, but I’m feeling a little more hopeful this time.
Instinct is something that doesn’t get talked about when we talk about writing, except maybe in a clinical sense. We talk about rules that we follow and rules we break. We talk about inspiration. We talk about styles, processes, all kinds of things. But we don’t always hear about the instinct of a writer.
For me, it’s a very large part of how I create a story, to know if it feels right to me. It’s more than just looking at a rough, just-written passage and feeling the frustration of how horrible it reads. It’s more than keeping to the notes of future plot points written on my index cards (or in my head). It’s more than knowing if I’m following the rules, mine or others’.
Regarding the Apartment Complex story, my continued frustration with the previous versions was that instinct kept telling me: this is not the way the story is supposed to go. It was telling me: this is not the story you want to tell. The prose was weak and the plot was forced, sure. But instinct kept telling me I was going in the wrong direction.
With many of my projects, it’s instinct that tells me whether a possible plot point is worth it or just filler. This is how I edit my own work, to some degree. During the Great Trilogy Revision, I relied on instinct almost exclusively; I knew the story inside and out, so I could tell what was weak and need to be excised. There are numerous scenes — many of them in The Balance of Light — that were cut for precisely this reason. It just didn’t feel right to me. In the context of the rest of the story, if it felt like a weak point, or a useless ramble, out it went. But I was also putting the trilogy in the context of an extremely long single novel; I had to rely on instinct that what I was editing and revising in Book 3 connected on a deeper level to the other two books, and the entire story as a whole.
It’s not a magical thing, instinct. But it’s something I’ve relied upon quite a bit over the years with my writing. I connect myself to my writing on a level where I try to understand its spirit, if that makes sense. Or perhaps it’s like music, my other obsession. I understand the melody and where it’s going, anticipating its flourishes and quietness, connecting with its tempo and its ambiance. And I try to sculpt the story into what I hear within me, waiting to come out.
It definitely took me years to learn this, but it’s never let me down once I did.
I think I’ve trained myself to the point where I’m not looking at a calendar and going ‘Wait, it’s April already? I haven’t done jack! MY LIFE SUCKS’ anymore. Well, not as often, anyway. Right now I just look at every new month as a way to start off fresh with my whiteboard schedule and see how far I can go with it. I don’t even feel bad when I miss a day for whatever reason (even if that reason is ‘laziness’). I just do what I can in thirty-odd day increments.
Typing this made me think of something I’d said during a panel at FogCon a few weeks ago, when someone had asked about the ability to get anything done when one already has a full schedule. I’d told them about my whiteboard calendar, telling them that it’s not a matter of getting everything completed in one go; it was a matter of doing doing a little bit at a time, and that would add up. Don’t aim for the finish line every single time…sometimes all you need to do is aim for the end of the chapter, or maybe even a few hundred words. It does indeed add up by the end of it. That’s how I was able to write 80k words for Meet the Lidwells in such a short amount of time.
I will fall back into the occasional ‘I’m not even close to getting any shit done’ stress-out, of course. I’ve been fighting it a lot lately, what with my multiple attempts at trying to write/rewrite/restart the Apartment Complex story. It’s partly why I’m trying out a rough draft of In My Blue World using 750Words; I’m tricking my brain into thinking that I’m being twice as productive instead of spending all that time freaking out over a single project. [I’m actually kind of surprised it’s working, to be honest.]
So yeah, I’m not too worried that it’s April already. In fact, I’ve embraced it — it’s getting warmer here in the Bay Area to the point where I have the window open in Spare Oom to let some fresh air in. It’s also given me the impetus to get my writing work done early so I can get back into the habit of going to the gym after the Day Job!
It’s just a matter of taking it a bit at a time, apparently. Or in this case, a month at a time.
After all the frustration of the last couple of weeks, I’m glad to say I’ve got my writing back under control. I’m back to getting my daily practice words working on a rough draft of the next project, while spending my evening sessions working on attempt number four of the Apartment Complex story. I’ve given that project a lot of thought over the last couple of days, figured out (I hope) what works and what didn’t, revised how I’m going to approach it, and I’m just going to go ahead and write the damn thing without any reservations.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered numerous false starts, and I know it won’t be the last. That’s part and parcel of the writing biz, unfortunately. All I can do is soldier on, one way or another.
Getting back on the horse can be frustrating in itself, especially when your brain wants you to be running full tilt from the beginning. That rarely works out though. Sometimes you just have to be patient and relearn the process to fit the kind of story you want to write. Take it as it comes, and eventually you’ll suddenly notice you’re back up to your normal processing speed.
[Yeah, I know… I’m going a bit overboard with all the idioms in this post. Sorry about that.]
ANYWAY! The good thing about all of this is that I’m going in the right direction, and that’s the most important part.