Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
There is a distinct possibility that I will never be truly happy. No, no, not with my life, I’m riding a wave of contentment that had been uninterrupted since the last time I shook the blanket of negativity earlier this spring. What mean is, never be happy as a writer, and specifically, with my writing, and more specifically, with this novel that I swear to eff I will one day complete.
I’ve recently finished my third major revision of Wake the Drowned, and I was sure to drown that bad boy in a sea of red. So naturally when I opened it up for a fourth crack at it, I thought it would be relatively smooth sailing from here. Woefully, this has not been the case for this last month and red ink is still being liberally spilled. I’d be curious to run a comparison blackline at this point to see just how much has changed since the first draft, because it feels that the cumulative changes must be massive.
So, like any true writer, this makes me question everything about myself and my art. Will I ever be happy with the finished product? Part of me likes to think so, especially when I do have that stretch of several paragraphs that I glide over without making any changes (this uncorks a whole different batch of paranoias, but let’s not get into those right now). I also admit that the beginning of the novel has always been a challenge not only because of the pressure to make it a good hook, but because the initial draft was written so long ago that I’m still trying to wash out the ghosts of my previous writing mistakes. I suppose that’s one of the challenges of working on a novel for so long, especially during such a formative time of both my life and my writing. Part of me doubts that it’s necessary to keep working on it, but a bigger part of me wants to see this story through and told well.
Given my natural struggles with approximately the first quarter of Wake the Drowned, I’m not surprised I’m hitting the doubting blues. If I recall correctly, I suffered the same fate during the last two drafts as well. I want to believe that pushing myself through this is the right thing to do for me and my craft. But even through these questions I have to remember that every word and every red mark counts in the end. They’re the drops that add up to make me the writer I am. Even all those stories you may have discarded, or novels that died after three chapters, they’re all worth something.
I think you’re writing is similar to faith – it’s not worth much if you don’t freely question it. And for that reason, I believe the occasional frustration is not only unavoidable, but desirable in a good writer.
So even if I’m feeling a bit dull about the novel, maybe after I’ve hit a few pages that made me stare at them in awe of a bungled transition or ham-fisted metaphor, I find that I just need to take a deep breath, and turn the page and keep plowing away at it until I get to a stretch that reminds me that I’m a decent writer. Because if I can do it for a few pages, then with enough thought and tinkering, I can sustain that momentum for a few hundred pages, and a quality novel would rise from all this effort. Or it could not, and it will simply become the foundation on which I will build my next work, and the next.
The important thing is not drown in your own sea of red. The fact that you’re fixing and rewriting so much is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It means you’re constantly accepting your errors, you’re learning and improving. It would be far worse if you were incapable of putting a critical eye on your work, or if you were afraid to accept that sometimes what you wrote didn’t work.
To borrow a bit from Ms. Frizzle – here’s to taking chances, making mistakes and getting messy. And also conquering your writing fears. Mine seems to be the fear of never being good enough. But what I need to remind myself is that succumbing to this fear is the main threat to being good enough. So I can either wallow, or I can keep writing and keep editing. Keep building, and keep destroying. And one day, Rome will be built.
Not gonna lie folks, the real world is hitting me pretty hard this week – my big boy is starting kindergarten and I’m not sure what to do with this bouquet of emotions I’ve been handed. I’m not sure how we arrived here so quickly. I can still feel his warmth on my chest from those times where I strapped him into the baby carrier at three in the morning to rock him back to sleep. And now he’s about to walk away from us and enter the building where he will likely make the bulk of his childhood memories, away from his mom and me.
I feel like a big part of parenting is accepting that the helpless lump that relied on you for every need including holding up their own head is transitioning into this independent human being, with their own life, thoughts and memories. Who doesn’t remember their first day of school? I recall standing wide-eyed with some flowers outside my grade one classroom on a rainy Moscow September morning. I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for the journey I was about to undertake – both into the next major stage of my life, but also into a whole new language that would come to shape my life forever. And now somehow more than a quarter-century later, on a different continent, my own son stands on the same threshold, about to enter into French Immersion and unlock for himself a whole new world that comes with learning a new language.
On the one hand, I’m terrified – my memories of myself in elementary school are a bit too fresh. But on the other hand, I know he’ll do just fine. This is the same kid who almost fell down the stairs when leaving the library because he couldn’t get his nose out of a book. And his teacher seems absolutely lovely so he should be in good hands.
One thing I like that our school is doing is this slow transition, which honestly is more for the benefit of the parents than the students. First we get to meet the teacher for an hour, absorb the classroom our kid will be spending the majority of their waking hours for the next year, get a sense of their teaching style so that we get a sense of what’s going to be going on there during school hours. In our case, we then got a day where we get to adjust to everything we’ve heard, to complete the checklist that’s been given to us and read a very thorough write-up on class activities and expectations. And then finally the kiddo got to march off to school for about an hour-and-a-half yesterday, so that us parents aren’t a crippled weeping mess when they got home from their first exciting “day” of school. Then we transition into a couple of half days, after which we’re off to the races.
So I’m glad we get to do a slow burn on this. I know I’ve seen my wife do the silent thousand-yard-stare a couple of times during the last few days, and she’s told me that I have been a little sullen at times too. Even his little brother looked a little shell-shocked after dropping off his big bro on the footsteps of his classroom. He ate three hash-browns at McDonald’s later that morning, so I think he’ll be okay too.
It feels like the first real test of our responsibilities and abilities as parents – did we do all the right things over the last five years to prepare our son for this. Does he know how to make friends? Does he know how to make mistakes? Does he know how to succeed humbly and to push through failures and challenge himself? All of that will be revealed in due course and it’s absolutely petrifying.
Thankfully we already got a preview by having a one-on-one teacher conference yesterday – which gave us a chance to absorb first impressions. Did I mention his teacher is amazing? Because she is. She seems to already have a read on his big personality and I’m hopeful that he’ll thrive. We just have to make sure we keep doing our part.
As much as we creative types tend to see our works as our children – little pieces of ourselves that we hand over to the world – nothing I write will likely make a greater impact than raising these two wonderful boys. It all kind of puts into perspective years of writing, hours of editing, days of agonizing over whether a manuscript will be liked by a beta reader or accepted by a publication. After years of steering our ship blindly, the anxiety reaches a bit of a crescendo and all the questions begin to be answered, probably with more questions, the most important of which is: have we given him everything he needs, and did we manage to go beyond?
I don’t mean to throw a gloomy cast over the entire affair – storm clouds of anticipation and anxiety aside, this is a magical time. He’s taking his first steps into a life outside of his parents, into taking responsibility for himself as an individual and a human being. Just like when I took his hand in my mine when he first starting walking, I hope I can support him now as well. Shine bright, kiddo.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been mentioning how I was close to the completion of the fourth draft of my first novel, Wake the Drowned. Today I’m happy to share the news that the draft has been completed, bound and printed, and now sits on my desk as I begin work on the next draft. This particular undertaking took about nine months and found me sometimes breezing through 2-3 pages at a time, and then being stuck on a single paragraph for two days. This is definitely not the smooth reading experience I would expect from something that’s a final draft, not that I expected this to be the one.
Even with the first couple of pages, on which I’ve probably spent the most amount of time over the last few drafts, I knew that the sea of red wasn’t a particularly encouraging sign that I was anywhere near done. But I didn’t let that discourage me, liberally spilling red ink over the next 245 pages.
This draft is also a product of me taking research seriously. It’s not as if I was talking out of my ass before, but there’s always room to do better. I was pleasantly surprised how accurate some of my details were and also humbled by where I stood to inject some realism. I strongly encourage reading both non-fiction and fiction books on your subject to look both for inspiration and to bolster the credibility of your work. I’m certainly not done the research portion of this writing process and I expect the next couple of drafts to reflect this.
I also ran through all the graphs and metrics I use to improve the productivity of my editing process. This includes the plot graph, my word clouds, my “shit list”, and others. I’ll elaborate all on these in upcoming entries though you can read a bit about my word cloud process here. In any case, I saw improvement, some modest, some significant, on all of my metrics, which again pumps me with excitement for the following drafts.
But I think the most important aspect of draft 4 is that this is the draft that I have chosen to share with a small group of beta readers. I have previously talked about how my wife was subjected to a largely undigested first draft, but with three major rewrites since then, I felt I was ready to go into a slightly wider world.
This is where the excitement really begins and my stomach is aflutter with all sorts of butterflies. Sharing my writing with other people has always been an exhilarating and terrifying experience for me and I look forward to it every time. I can’t wait to see what they enjoy (hopefully something) and what I need to improve (hopefully not everything).
I’ve heard time and time again that writers should just write for themselves and not worry about what other people think. But I see the writer as primarily a storyteller, and for a story to be told, it needs to be heard. So while I want my beta readers to like my novel, I don’t want them to do so unequivocally. I want them honestly to tell me what they think about my story, because my story is not for me, it’s for the world.
After this, I estimate I have about three drafts left (two of them post-beta readers) until I might be in a spot where I think I’ve given the story all I can give, and at my current pace, this should take about a year and a half. After working on Wake the Drowned for more than a decade, this feels like almost no time at all, the proverbial light at the end of that tunnel. At this point, I’ve got an unquenchable craving to see it through, which is why I didn’t bother to take a break between drafts four and five and dove right into the next one while my beta readers go through my novel at a comfortable pace.
I hope this novel is the one, but at the same time, I know it’s my first novel, and it should be treated as a learning experience. So wherever this journey ends up, I’ll just be content to bask in the excitement of a long and massive project slowly nearing its completion.
Any day now, I’ll finish draft 4 of Wake the Drowned, and when I do, I will inundate you with useless statistics and maybe some marginally helpful editing and novel planning tips along the way, but until that happens, I want to talk about inspiration.
For the writers in the audience, we all have an author or work that at one point has made us go “Wow, this is the thing I want to create. I want my writing to make someone feel like this makes me feel right now.” For me, one of those works, and probably the earliest one I can remember, is J. Michael Straczynski’s science-fiction series, Babylon 5, which I have previously mentioned on multiple occasions as a great inspiration.
Not sure how many of you folks will remember Babylon 5 but it ran in the 90s on the Prime Time Entertainment Network and then TNT for its final season and was the original (and superior) cousin of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The show followed the crew of the space station Babylon 5, built by humans to be a hub of diplomacy and understanding between different species, as they struggled with their internal politics and threats from ancient races.
Very importantly, it was one of the shows that found both syndication and a fan following in 90s Russia, where I had grown up, and because off its airtime, served as a forbidden fruit. It was on after my bedtime, which was extended to cover the show only on Fridays, so the other four days of the week I had to piece the show together by sneaking out of bed and standing quietly in the doorway, bolting every time there was a commercial break knowing that that’s when I was apt to get caught. My parents later claimed they mostly knew about this but I still like to think I was pretty stealthy.
What struck me about B5, aside from the cool aliens which would tickle the imagination of any young boy who was into Star Wars, was that it was my first exposure to long-form storytelling. Babylon 5 remains fairly unique in its approach to its story – it started off with a pre-planned five-season story arc, and it was given a chance to conclude its full five-season arc, albeit with some shuffling in the final two seasons due to a threat of cancellation. My little child mind was absolutely boggled by this as stories and themes were interwoven, secrets had satisfying resolutions, and actions had consequences reaching into seasons ahead.
It was the first work of fiction that taught me that characters can come in shades of gray, that as one enemy redeems himself the other can face a cruel downfall, their fates seeming both inevitable and completely avoidable. It showed me that humour can cohabitate with tragedy, and strength with vulnerability, and that somewhere deep within me my own stories were itching to get out.
The reason B5 was on my mind as I set to write this post is twofold. Firstly, I have been diligently working on Chapters 2 and 3 of Drops of the Black Sun (despite what the general lack of updates would otherwise suggest), my own long-form mostly pre-planned sci-fi series that I’m sharing here on this blog. As I’m putting together these early chapters and planning for the future of the series, I can’t help but seek inspiration from B5 and I have spotted some unintentional minor similarities that make me question whether I have an original bone in my body.
The other reason this has been on my mind is because on Tuesday, through the magic of the internet, I had a chance to have a brief interaction with the creator of B5 himself. J. Michael Straczynski did an AMA on the /r/books subreddit and I was lucky enough to catch the beginning and fire off my comment. I told him the little tidbit about watching it past my bedtime and what an influence he was.
The ever-humble Straczynski advised me to never let “some other show” influence me as a writer. In general, I take his meaning. Those previously mentioned similarities notwithstanding, I want my work to be original, but what are we without the giants whose shoulders we stand on? Straczynski is one of the giants for me. While I want Drops to have a unique voice, to breathe life into a story and into characters that are entirely my own, I can’t help but see my work through the lens of works that have inspired me. I want to at least come close to bringing to the world the same complexity, the character development and engaging story that Straczynski brought me when I was a kid.
So with that said, I hope you all get a chance to experience the brilliance that is Babylon 5. I know I’m already looking to my next rewatch, and to bringing you even a smidgen of the same powerful storytelling.
In today’s post, I wanted to continue the theme of last week’s entry, and talk a bit about another aspect of self-care: boredom. Firstly, I want to recognize that I’m not breaking any new ground here. Though our aversion to boredom may have something to do with being unable to block out the unpleasant thoughts and feelings that attempt to constantly bombard us, it’s well-accepted that that same lack of distractions can also spur creativity. What I did want to talk about though was my own personal recent experience with the relationship between boredom and creativity.
I’m generally fairly inseparable from my phone. Not to the point where I might be constantly texting all day, but at the height of Pokemon Go I did fall down the stairs once, and the less said about that, the better. Waiting rooms, walks to and from the bus stop, and washroom breaks have historically been accompanied by either my Reddit feed, or whatever flavor-of-the-month mobile game I’m playing at the time. Too many hours have been spent playing Disney Emoji Blitz, as my Disney obsession is well-documented.
I am very well aware of the fact that the hours spent on my phone are, by and large, “wasted time”, in the sense that while they’re entertaining (and I think time spent enjoying yourself is not technically wasted time) there are no long-term benefits derived from it whatsoever. It’s similar to eating cookies – it’s not “wasted” food but a lot of the time you should probably eat something other than a cookie. Same with mobile games; I acknowledge that I can be doing something more useful but boredom is unpleasant and games are just so darn fun. There, I said it. I know some of you are probably more disciplined than me, but for many, this should sound familiar.
Over the last couple of weeks I found myself in a lull between games – nothing spoke to me enough that it made micromanaging inventories and daily tasks worth it. Of course, there were no shortage of Reddit updates to get into as that front page is theoretically infinite, so I will give myself some credit for consciously choosing not to pull out my phone and actually enjoy the scenery of the beautiful campus I work on.
This will sound stupid in both how obvious and cheesy it is, but boy does it feel good to lift your head and just walk for a change. It helps that it’s summer and therefore not raining here every day to the point where you’d sooner drown yourself in the nearest puddle. What I found though, is that even if we only took the walking part of my commute, which is about ten minutes each way from the bus loop to my office, I had twenty extra minutes in my day to allow my mind to wander. And, being the kind of mind that I have, it invariably wandered to my writing.
It’s no coincidence that it was last week that I finally finished the first draft of Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun, which had been slow going since spring. The first sketches of Chapter 3 are already populating my Moleskine notebook, along with notes for the current draft of Wake the Drowned, and bits of dialogue for the bedtime story I’ve been telling my kids since January. In fact, that same notebook that I’ve had since December and was only half-full a month ago is now almost complete. I don’t remember the last time I had such a burst of creativity on multiple projects. I’ve even managed to take this week to design a flag for the Human Interstellar Dominion in Drops of the Black Sun, just because my brain happened to have had some extra capacity to work on it.
I have gone at length about all the different ways you can deal with writer’s block and one of the obvious solutions was staring right in the face the whole time … literally. That said, I’m not going to pretend that I will reduce all my phone use to a minimum, or that I won’t at some point, for however long, slip into another game that gets me with its dopamine microdosing. Nor do I want to make the argument that writers that do shun technology to that extent necessarily make better writers. Quite the contrary, I think a writer impoverishes themselves by deliberately shunning anything that is enjoyed by a large number of people. I don’t believe in the artist as a creature unto themselves and I strive to see how people tick.
What I do want to acknowledge is the benefit of boredom. Even for a few minutes a day. Make an effort to spend time away from your desk, to let your brain breathe without being subjected to the myriad of stimulations tossed at it like slop to hogs. Take a moment to listen to what your brain has to say, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
In May, the family and I had taken a two-week vacation together, our first such break after we’ve had kids, so about six years since the last one. We were on Oahu in Hawaii, in a hotel with Wi-Fi, so we weren’t exactly off the grid, but because of the hectic days, the relaxed evenings, and a couple of thousand miles separating me from my work computer, I generally stayed off the internet.
This felt unsettling at first, like I was missing out on something big that everyone was a part of, but as the weeks progressed, the silence that filled the space of constant news, and Reddit and Twitter updates felt refreshing. It’s as if a stormy sea had calmed and I could now relax on the gently rolling waves. And this is when it hit me: news was slowly poisoning me.
There’s been some general consensus that tuning into the news cycle is closely associated with feelings of stress and anxiety, and even general fatigue and sleep deprivation, and this seems like a fairly common sense conclusion. Yet it’s one thing to nod along to an intuitive concept, and another thing entirely to experience it as acutely as I had towards the end of my vacation.
I can’t emphasize enough the benefits of vacation, especially where you can leave work behind, or when you get to spend precious time with your family. In this case, there was also the added benefit of allowing myself to detox just enough to actually feel the difference from not exposing myself to the news on a consistent basis. Imagine that every time you read a bit of negative news, you activate your normal stress responses. Now take a moment to consider how many snippets of negative media coverage you consume a day, and think about how that puts your body in a near-constant state of stress. Think that’s doing you any good?
So why do we do it then? Personally, I want to refer again to that feeling of unease; the sense that I’m being excluded from a very large and important conversation. I enjoying being an informed individual. So many things are happening in the world that I can’t submit myself to ignorance, whether it be ignorance of international politics or pop culture. “Ignorance is bliss” is simply not an option, and I’m sure many others feel the same way too; that “ignorance” is the salient point here, and “bliss” is just appended there tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it’s actually the reverse.
Firstly, I took a critical look at the “ignorance” I was actually risking subjecting myself to. It’s useful for me to know that there is a trade war between us and our closest neighbour, and that it involves steel and dairy and other products. But do I need to consume every article on the matter? Do I need to know every product, the actual numbers, what the trade ministers have said, and what Joe and Jane Doe think about the situation in the comments section? I know the world is filled with noxious politicians, but what am I doing to myself by perusing all their vile tweets and comments, every ignorant decision, and every racist or sexist bleat of support in their favour?
And then there’s the ceaseless social media debates between not the most level-headed individuals on either side. Tell me, how often do you engage in, or witness, vitriolic partisan discussion in real life versus online? Social media is particularly effective at polarizing discussions and probably helps us hold unwarranted beliefs that we’re surrounded by people with such different thinking that they might as well be members of a different species. This all falls as sediment in our subconscious minds, and we carry the weight with us through our waking and sleeping hours.
There is an epidemic of stress-inducing media coverage: news articles about the latest evidence supporting climate change, or the recent erosions of democracy, refugees crises, natural disasters, housing prices, local murders. Some have compared news to being the sugar of the mind: easy to digest, mildly addictive, and absolutely horrible for you.
I think what we’re experiencing is the inevitable fallout of the Information Revolution. In the same way that the byproduct of the Industrial Revolution choked cities in black smog, so does the Information Revolution choke our minds with information that slowly poisons us. How many articles about the negative mental health effects of social media do we need before we accept that this bombardment has stark similarities with the ubiquitous smog and microplastics that we’ve accepted as being immensely harmful to us?
Now let’s take a moment to talk about the “bliss” part of the “ignorance is bliss” adage. What I felt towards the end of that two-week sabbatical from news and social media was similar to the lifting of a weight. Before leaving town, I was going through one of my lengthy episodes of negative affect. It dissipated sometime during my break and hasn’t reared its ugly head since. Of course, the conclusions I can make from this are far from scientific – there’s no way to separate this particular aspect of my vacation from any of its other benefits. That said, the clarity I experienced is difficult to ascribe to anything else.
By plugging into the world on a regular basis, I allowed it to take up more of my headspace than my immediate surroundings. By constantly worrying about the thoughts and opinions of others, strangers the likes of which I would unlikely ever encounter in real life, I allowed them to dominate my thinking instead of people with who I interact on a daily or even occasional basis. The great conversation I was worried about missing out on had actually been squeezing me out of the present moment, and the moment I embraced the present, my mood, my energy levels, my joie de vivre had also seemed to reach levels I hadn’t felt in years.
I’m not advocating shutting our minds off to the tumult entirely. Disengaging completely from issues that don’t immediately affect us only serves to exacerbate the problems that don’t go away just because we stopped hearing about them. But perhaps it would be smarter to take a more measured approach: to sip the news rather than open our gullets to the deluge and quickly drown.
This is why ever since I came back from our trip, I’ve reduced my news consumption without unplugging completely. For many articles now, I read the first few paragraphs to get the general gist, without weighing myself down with details. Other articles, which just depict heavy news, I contend with just reading the headlines. There’s an immense amount of tragedy in the world. And while we shouldn’t ignore the plight of others, what mind can withstand the weight of all their unfathomable human suffering?
The filter I actively try to apply to selecting what I read is this: 1) what benefit is this information to me, and 2) how will this help me create a more positive effect on the world. You’d be surprised at the volume of information you consume that does pretty poorly on these two criteria.
And then that leaves the comment sections, which if you’re going to extend the pollution metaphor, is the equivalent of sucking on a car’s exhaust pipe, so I’ve tried to shut my eyes to these almost entirely. Again, I’m not recommending the extreme opposite here – surrounding yourself only with like-minded individuals who won’t trouble your world view. What I want though, is to interact with real people, who are far less likely to resort to childish name-calling or death threats during a disagreement.
The internet has done incredible things in terms of connecting us and letting individuals reach into the far corners of the world. But if we reach too far, we risk getting pulled apart at the centre and losing the core of who we are. Pull out the IV drip of poisonous news, and enjoy breathing easier.
Recently I’d tweeted something about the fact that one of my most satisfying moments in editing are deletions. This has stuck with me since then, and I’ve been taking a more critical approach to phrases, sentences and passages that I’m editing and I feel like I’m onto something here, so I thought I would expand on this.
I’ve previously talked about writer’s block and the various ways I deal what that stubborn bit of writing that just won’t let me be. But what if making it perfect isn’t the answer? What if making it disappear is what makes your writing stronger?
At first, this sounds like a quitting attitude, and I do agree that a deletion decision needs to be critically assessed. It’s tempting to interrogate yourself and ask whether you’re just giving up on something and whether a better writer would be able to write their way out of this one. But good writers delete, and you should too.
Secondly, I acknowledge that deleting your own writing hurts. This is your baby, come from within the depths of your creative process, and now you’re expected to unceremoniously sever it and discard it? As traumatic as the experience might be for you, there’s a reason why “kill your darlings” is a bit of writing advice that’s been driven into the ground. Sometimes, no matter how attached you are to the smaller piece, its removal might be an overall benefit to the whole. And if you really do think it’s a good line that just happens to be in the wrong place in the wrong time, save it somewhere else. I have a whole file with deleted sentences and paragraphs to use to inspire myself later. It may find a home a yet.
So let’s look at this in the context of the actual deletion I made last week. This was in Wake the Drowned, the novel I’m currently editing, and the protagonist, Charlie, is struggling about whether or not to enter a room and help another character, but then this character says something completely inappropriate, and the protagonist leaves instead. The immediate next sentence after the protagonist makes his decision and is described as leaving the room is as follows: “There was no need for Charlie there.” While there is nothing wrong with that sentence by itself, something didn’t feel quite right.
My first suspicion was that it didn’t show my character’s motivation or decision making enough. After all, the preceding sentence never explicitly states that Charlie couldn’t or wouldn’t help this other character or why. So I fiddled with the following alternatives: “There was nothing Charlie could do then” or “Charlie realized there was nothing he could have done” or “There was nothing Charlie could do for [character] now.” While about as short and punchy as the original sentences, all of these options didn’t sound right. So I went with a more complicated structure to the tune of the following: “Despite what twisted Charlie on the inside, if he’d cross the room then, he would soon discover that [character] had now sunken out of reach of his help.” This seemed to somehow make things much worse.
So I stared it for a few minutes, wondering why this little sentence, with its expression of hopelessness in a hopeless situation, was bothering me so much. And then I just put a fat red line through it, and read the paragraph again.
Now the scene ended with Charlie leaving the room, without any epilogue-type commentary. That’s it. Here he is contemplating helping, the character saying something inappropriate, then Charlie leaving. Sure, I can add extra details about what Charlie felt at the moment, but what would that accomplish? He left. The reader understands what the decision implies, and if Charlie’s exact train of thought isn’t set out, what’s the big deal? So I figured out what was wrong with the sentence. The sentence couldn’t be editing or improved, because the problem was that it should never have been there in the first place.
I’ve always struggled with the mother of all writing advice: “show, don’t tell”. I don’t pretend that I truly know what it means but I caught a glimpse of it at that moment. “There was no need for Charlie there” was doing precisely that – telling us what Charlie felt, instead of showing us that he left.
There is, of course, the lingering possibility that I made the wrong choice. Perhaps some beta readers will feel like something is missing from this paragraph. And if that happens, I would need to rethink my choices. At this point, I found the red strikethrough to be liberating. I liked the sentence and how it sounded and how it capped off a previous much longer sentence. But ultimately I decided that it detracted from the work, and out it went. I’ll move past whatever pain that causes, because the next sentence calls.
Pretty much the same day that I posted my last entry, it had become out of date. For those that don’t want to reread it, the lightning fast summary is that I explained that the reason I was so slow writing Chapter 2 of Drops of the Black Sun is because I was afraid of losing track of the lore and needed to find a user-friendly way of cataloguing it. So at the end of the entry I concluded that Excel was the way to go, and since I had been populating my spreadsheet for a couple of weeks by that point, I thought I had settled on a strategy.
This all came crashing down later that afternoon, where I hit a particularly lore-heavy part of my story and realized that the spreadsheet was becoming a disaster. Just look at the below, and consider that this is about four pages into an idea that’s hundreds, if not thousands, pages long:
I’m not entirely sure I why I failed to realize this amount of information will completely overwhelm a table, but I’m not shy about admitting when I was a doofus.
So this doofus needed an alternative, and so I went back to my original concept of a wiki-type file. This time I got off my lazy ass and Googled whether and how you can create internal hyperlinks in Word. You can, and it’s especially easy when you use headings. So now instead of saving time and moving on with my writing, I’ve been busy transferring all the data I already put in Excel, and then organizing into something that I can actually work with.
So far, it’s working much better. Sure, it’s already 17 pages long and 500 words even though I still haven’t quite gotten through half of Chapter 1 yet. And sure, deep down in my gut there is this feeling that once the document grows too big, it will implode on me. But this is the best I can do with the resources I have available. And I know “Word” is a bit of a taboo world in writing circles, but I figured I’d give you a tour anyway.
So here you can see where the wiki inspirations shines through. I’ve got category pages that list all entities in the category, and then links coming off that list to the actual entries.
And here you see a sample entry with the information table at the top – some of the columns are placeholders in case I come up with other characteristics by which I want to distinguish planets from each other. The yellow highlight is a reminder to myself that this fact hasn’t actually made it into the work yet. So there you go, a sneak peak at a minor detail. As you can see, I also want to track where the entity has been mentioned in case I want to read up on what was actually said, rather than what made its way into this encyclopedia entry.
And here we see a sample of an entry that’s more “filled-out”, with the table above and the subheadings a bit more populated. “(BI, C1)” is a shorthand for “Book I, Chapter 1” and operates as an internal “cite your sources” function. Again, so I can check back and figure out what the hell I was actually talking about.
So there you go, my adventures in worldbuilding continue, and hopefully I won’t have to change course any time soon. Meanwhile, going to go wish on a star that I can actually start writing this again soon.
Lately I’ve been feeling a bit like George R. R. Martin, if Martin had wrote the first chapter of A Game of Thrones and then promptly fucked off the face of the Earth. Success seems to be a favourite prey of ambition. One of my major follies is building up myself a lofty goal and then getting buried by the inevitable avalanche that follows. The only solution is then to burn the ruins to the ashes and move onto the next overwhelming task.
About three months ago, I ambitiously started my science fiction project, Drops of the Black Sun, which I planned to release as a web novel on this blog. Usually I’m a non-genre writer, but I’ve always had a soft spot for science fiction, so I figured I could write it off the side of my desk and share it with the rest of the world in an unhurried fashion. In mid-March, I finished posting Chapter 1. Almost three months later, Chapter 2 is a work in progress, and like George Martin, I am filled with wholehearted promises to get my audience the next installment.
In the meantime, instead of being content with tweets of lamentation, I figured I’d share in a bit more detail what I’ve been going through the last couple of months in terms of the creative process, and hopefully the other writers out there can glean something useful out of my experience.
First and foremost I want to say, I haven’t given up on the project, nor has it turned into a chore, which is one of the reasons why it’s been progressing so slowly. I didn’t want to be buried by the weight of my own ambition in this case. Instead, I carefully took a measured approach to keep my joy alive and to keep some kind of semi-regular release schedule. This turned out a bit harder than I thought, and the main culprit is quality control.
It is far easier to be mediocre than good. So while the plot outlines and character arcs existed as networks of interconnected neurons in my own mind, they were difficult to scrutinize. But now that they were made flesh by writing them down, they needed to meet a standard. I knew I wasn’t planning to make it as polished as my traditional stuff, but that was still no excuse to make it sloppy. There were standards I needed to meet before I could share my work with others.
So that was one of the issues I face – “writing as I go” isn’t as easy as I thought when an involved editing process was going to be a crucial part of it. The bit of pressure I feel to continue to share the work does take the edge off the editing trap – revising and revising until your figurative knuckles turn bloody – but any way you spin it, editing is still not my favourite part of the writing process and it grinds along.
The other major issue that has been bugging me is worldbuilding. Which is funny, because in my introduction to Drops I explain that incessant worldbuilding is the reason I threw up my hands in the first place and started to write instead of plot the story to death. In a way, this reason is related to the first – quality control. My world needs to be polished and consistent, and I can’t risk being blindsided by neglected details.
I thought setting out to write was all I had to do. Yet not even two chapters into the endeavour I discovered that whereas worldbuilding without writing would not satisfy me, writing without a careful eye to worldbuilding is just as unsatisfactory.
I don’t know how the great worldbuilders do it, but I doubt they have a catalogue of all their world’s minutiae stored in their head. It’s not a task that my mind is up for and I already caught myself either thinking that I introduced something when I didn’t, and introducing something I thought I didn’t share but actually established in the previous chapter. I realized that I couldn’t move ahead at a good pace because I was worried about messing this up.
Anytime I namedrop a species or a planet, I need to make sure I record this instance. Both for consistency, and to avoid repetition and unnecessary exposition every time something comes up. Every little fact and name needed to be cataloged. So where I thought that setting out all this detail in advance wouldn’t work for me, neither would I be successful if I didn’t set out this detail after had I introduced it through my writing.
So now that the problem had been identified, I needed to look for a solution. Something that could replicate the ease of navigation of a wiki but be stored on my computer. Now, there is probably an app out there that would do a better job, but I’m a simple man – I need to record stuff, I go to Excel.
So over the last little while, all those times where I otherwise I would have worked on chapter 2, I’ve been putting together this lore repository that I myself could consult. Everything is separated into tabs by characters, planets, species, objects, etc. And in each of those tabs I record everything said on the subject as well as the precise chapters where they were referenced. It’s a bit of a painstaking process to build up, but I’m hoping that once I have the base, it will go a little quicker and won’t slow down my writing too much. My main goal here is using consistency to bring the world to life and keep the reader immersed. Now let’s hope the story itself can do the same thing.
So there you have it, some of the misadventures behind this unfortunate delay. I admit it’s a bit of a learning process, but I’m still committed to the story. Hope to see you for the release of the next chapter, whenever that might be.
The concept of a promise takes on a completely different character after you’ve had kids, especially kids with a sharp memory and a sense of justice. If you say they’ll get to watch “Moana” tomorrow, they better be signing along to “How Far I’ll Go” or you will be summoned in front of a tribunal to explain your actions. There are tiny persons now who believe in the inherent goodness of the world and the value of your word has a heightened sense of importance. It’s an interesting sensation to have a magnifying glass lifted up to your words, like little editors following you around ready to be somehow disappointed.
All of that to say that the one person to whom I make promises that I still happily break is myself. I promise to go to bed by ten o’clock today. Lies. I promise if I sleep-in an hour tomorrow I’ll have twice as many morning runs next week. Lies. I promise that when I go on vacation I will set aside some time to write and make a couple of blog updates. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, that was a lie as well, and one I tell myself every time I go away somewhere.
And here’s where the looming figure of imposter syndrome stands behind me and reads over my shoulder. If you were a real writer, would you really be able to stay away from writing, it asks. If it was truly your passion, wouldn’t you find the time, conjure it out of thin air as if your life depended it? Whatever my self-doubt has to say about being a writer, I know that being one primarily involves being a person. And as a person, sometimes I need to be kind to myself and do what I need to relax without feeling guilty about all the other things I might otherwise be doing.
And you know what? I highly recommend it. This was our first chance to take the kids on a getaway beach vacation. They’ve been to Disneyland twice now, but that in itself is a unique experience. Realistically, you can only spend a few days at Disneyland and you’re well-prepared that it’s all going to be a hectic blur. We’re fine with that, and we enjoyed those two trips immensely. Two weeks in Hawaii though is an entirely different experience.
Even though the carefree days of lounging with a book on the beach for hours, drifting in and out of naps, are long gone, and by the end of the day both me and my wife were left thoroughly exhausted, we still felt relaxed, rested and happy. It’s just one of the many paradoxes of parenting I suppose.
In a recent entry, I had talked a bit about how my day job is relatively high-demanding and often moves into my headspace when I’m not at work. Spending time with my family every day, heading to the pool or to the beach or simply eating meals together managed to clear a bit of that log jam. It’s unbelievable how much routine can clog up the pores of your mind and restrict its breathing.
But if the issue is work (or other parts of daily repetitions that you don’t necessarily enjoy, like the morning commute or chores), then why did my writing get swept away in the same stroke? Don’t I enjoy that? Now suddenly I have arrived at one of the questions many writers, and artists in general, ask: do I enjoy this? The answer is of course, a resounding “I do”, but do I enjoy every aspect of it? Do I enjoy writer’s block, against which I’ve rallied in multiple entries? Or perhaps the rigors of editing? Not so much. So maybe it’s a good idea to step away from those as well, to let the enjoyment of my art rise to the top?
Perhaps I’m making it sound like this was a result of conscious decisions. Far from it. Truth be told it just never entered my mind that I should interrupt my “doing nothing”. That said, those of you that have been reading this blog know that I’m an advocate of the proposition that writing words down is but the tip of the iceberg of the act of “writing”. Similarly in this case, while I may not have written new words I have lived, I have experienced, I reflected and recharged and came out of it a better writer. Being away gave me what I sorely needed at the time.
That is not to say that a part of me isn’t glad to be back. A vacation that lasts forever just becomes “life” and how are you supposed to take a vacation from that? It’s going to take me a couple of weeks to blow all of the cobwebs off my writing but I’m happy to jump into all the projects I have on the go with renewed energy. Hopefully this means getting you that second chapter of Drops of the Black Sun, finishing editing the fourth draft of Wake the Drowned, and completing some half-finished short stories that have been sitting around for more than a year.
Now, I know not everyone has the option to go on the kind of getaway that I described. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have these opportunities and I don’t mean to imply that flying somewhere for five hours is the only legitimate way to take a break. Instead, my primary purpose was to come up with an elaborate excuse as to why I hadn’t done any writing in the last three weeks. But seriously, I do believe it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself, to not push yourself to a brink, to give yourself a break when you need it or just when you want it. You don’t cease being a writer if you don’t write. Take a vacation, whether literal or figurative, from anything that might be getting you down. The rest will come.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.