Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Kviye took the skiff in a wide arc over the city, and landed it on one of the launch pads outside Valyen’s family’s garage. While she cut the engine and confirmed everything was in order, Valyen stepped outside and squinted in the light of the afternoon sun. She did not have the expression Kviye was hoping to see after a six-week separation, and Valyen took what appeared to be an angry bite out of her sandwich before heading around to greet Kviye at the loading ramp.
Once Kviye stepped onto solid ground with her arms open, Valyen relented, grumpily returning the hug, her sandwich still in hand and pressed against Kviye’s back.
“It’s really good to see you, Val,” Kviye said after releasing her friend.
“Is it? Could have fooled me.” Valyen chomped into her sandwich for another sour-looking bite.
“I know, I’m sorry, I should have tried to visit more. We’ve had a very busy season, but we’re doing well enough that we might not have to spend next winter in the marshlands at all, so that has to be worth something right?”
Valyen tried to maintain her dour look, though her voice softened at that. “You better mean it this time. We could use a pair of hands like yours around here.”
“And you won’t have to miss my sunny presence, either.” Kviye smiled and made an open gesture with her hands.
“Yeah, I’m not so sure about that. Can’t say that I’m that happy to – you just want to see it don’t you?”
A guilty smile spread over Kviye’s face. “I may be dying, yes.”
Valyen rolled her eyes and grunted, “Fine, let me show you.” Kviye followed her friend into the garage, and now that they were side by side she could see the long healing gash running from Valyen’s shoulder to her elbow. Against Valen’s creamy pale skin, common on this side of the continent though differing from the warm slightly brassy tones of Kviye and her family, and generally those who traced their ancestry mainly to Vingu and its environs, the cut looked even worse than she had imagined, the pink still an angry bright shade around the scab. Kviye raised her hand to touch it, but stopped shy of Valyen’s arm.
“I didn’t think it would look this bad.”
Valyen glanced briefly down at her arm and scoffed. “You should have seen it when it happened.”
“I kind of wish I had.”
“I still haven’t gotten all the stains out of my jacket. There was so much blood I thought I was going to pass out. Instead, I just tied this dirty rag around the wound and tried to keep working, pretty sure that was my brain going funny from blood loss. Adri found me and smacked some sense into me, and then patched me up pretty well. Can hardly feel it anymore. Didn’t even have to go to the doctor.”
“Where is Adri anyway, I was hoping to see him.”
“Today isn’t one of his good days.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“He’s doing well enough all things considered. It seems to be progressing slowly in him.” Valyen stopped by her desk in the little recessed office in the back of the garage, and pulled out a heavy case from underneath. ”Anyway. I’m still not sure why I’m doing this, but here it is.” She threw open the case, and revealed the single black sphere sitting inside.
Kviye carefully pulled it out and held it to the light between her thumb and index finger. The solid sphere not only did not allow any light to pass through, but rather seemed to bend it and swallow it, as if the ball, no larger than her pinky nail, was surrounded by a shadowy halo.
“It’s beautiful. Where did you get it from?” Kviye asked without ever turning her eyes away from the orb.
“Picked up from an Iastret research vessel,” Valyen responded, moving around some items on the table purposefully not looking at the increasingly intense look in Kviye’s eyes. “They needed some repairs, and some more grant money, so I guess it worked out quite well for them in the end.”
“Iastret? Are those the bird people?”
“I don’t think they like being called ‘bird people’, but yes, the bird people.”
“Are they still here? I was hoping to talk to them and see how it was used.”
“They were only here a few days, and took off a couple of weeks ago.”
“A couple weeks?” Kviye asked indignantly. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I told you, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to give it to you. I’m not joking when I say I walked it over to the river twice, fully intent on throwing my three thousand in the water.”
“So what finally made you decide to call me?”
“I don’t know, and don’t ask me or I’ll snatch that thing from you and march right down to the river again.”
“Well I’m glad you did.” Kviye took her eyes off the little black drop long enough to give her friend a thankful smile. “The little grains I’ve collected so far haven’t been able to properly power that auxiliary reactor or whatever it is, but this …”
“You think this one might be big enough?”
“Not by itself, no. If it had been, they would’ve asked for way more, even for a spent one. If I could augment it with the others, it should serve the same function as a much bigger piece.”
“I still feel like it’s bolting a rocket engine to a bathtub. Those things were never meant to go to space, Kvee.” Valyen shook her head.
“I know, I know,” annoyance and understanding fought for control of Kviye’s tone. “You know I need to find this out for myself.”
“I know it, but I don’t get it.”
I currently find myself in one of life’s biggest holding patterns – the arrival of a new baby. Of course, it’s my wife who’s taking the brunt of the waiting as we move into “any day now” mode with everyone’s bags ready to go whenever the little one decides that it’s time. Still, after going through most of the pregnancy during a pandemic that did not make it any easier to find ways to occupy the two kids that we already have, she still managed to finish a semester of school and go on almost daily walks, which she’s keeping up. It’s incredible what she can do.
As for myself, most of my experience is simply marinating in ever-increasing excitement and nervousness, throwing every possible second of my day into supporting her, and counting down the days to when my poor wife can stop struggling to turn over in her sleep like a very determined sea turtle returning to the ocean. I’m also ready to pull the trigger to go off on a short paternity leave (more like banked vacation, so I’ll take what I can get). So it’s a bit like living on a powder keg that can go off at almost any moment, but one that’s filled mostly with confetti.
The kids are also happily waiting to be introduced to their new baby brother or sister, with very serious and opposite opinions being held by each as to whether it will be a boy or a girl. They also met their newest baby cousin a couple of days ago (don’t worry, that family is in our pandemic bubble) and with the glow on their faces when they did, I just can’t wait for our own little bundle.
As we enter the home stretch, the undercurrent of anxiety that’s inherent with this kind of event can just go pound sand. Between cancelled family vacations, home schooling, and a pregnancy where you’re unable to go anywhere indoors, can’t see your parents, or ever truly meet your healthcare providers, this has been a ray of hope and joy to ride out the last few months. Sometimes it feels like swirling around in your own personal eddy while a storm of uncertainty rages around you, and in the end, I’m just looking forward to entering this new stage of our lives, turning into a father of three, and for us turning into a family of five, and all the adventures that would come with that.
There’s something to those walks with the baby carrier at three in the morning that help me refocus and reprioritize; realize what the important things are in my life and to reorient myself in their direction. Even if in their first few weeks and months I have way less time for my writing, I feel like my kids only help me grow as a writer, allowing me new insights about myself and the world that serve my writing.
So if I disappear for a little while, the reason is I’ve got a new ten pound project keeping me up at night, and I wouldn’t wish to have it any other way.
As Kviye made her way up the ladder and into the passage that led towards the cockpit, she was hit with the same familiar smell – of getting tucked in at bedtime, of breakfast around the table in the early blue light of dawn as her mother readied to go on a flight, of evenings spent reading or tinkering with spare parts by lamplight. It was the smell of her mother, and after all these years this space still exuded it. In all likelihood, it was her mother who had actually soaked up the ancient smells of the skiff, but Kviye pushed away this truth in favour of her mother’s presence lingering here after all these years, watching over Kviye, ready to guide her through the flight she was about to undertake.
The skiff’s engine purred to life, only a high-pitched whine and vibrations in her feet indicating it was on. She gently lifted the ship off the ground and out of the hangar, and then having pointed the nose to her destination, initiated the throttle and shot above the landscape.
Lakes and crisscrossing streams zipped by underfoot as she slowly gained altitude to get above the storm whose edges she could already see on the horizon. Within fifteen minutes, all that lay below were cobalt churning clouds pressing down on the marshes where even the soil would ripple in waves from the wind. The cabin of the skiff shuddered and she brought it up even higher.
The previous year, she attempted to prove her theory and tested the limits of the skiff’s ability. She brought it up higher than she ever had, higher than the altitude her mother had warned her never to try rise above, a rather specific number that made Kviye wonder as to the origins of its calculation, and just when she thought everything she heard was simply an old fable designed to keep hearts rooted firmly to the ground, the ship stalled and she made it hallway to the surface before regaining control, telling of her failed experiment to no one but Valyen. Even with that knowledge, Valyen still procured the part for her, and if it worked the way Kviye expected, then the next time she made the attempt, she should be able to take the skiff out of the atmosphere and make it one step closer to proving that it was these ships that were what brought her ancestors here from somewhere out there; the birthplace of humanity.
Once the storm cleared, she was already past the marshes, and entering the drier hilly grasslands on the south side of their small continent. She lowered the ship closer to the ground, observing the small moving dots of the massive four-legged creatures that grazed these parts undisturbed by their human neighbours. There were only two rivers that meandered through these valleys, the occasional white blemishes of human settlements jutting off to the side. Kviye wondered how everyone that below was so content to assume they had always been there, that there was no other home than this small moon circling a grey gas giant. “Where had they come from?” was a question that not only didn’t have an answer, but no askers as well. Valyen’s response had always been “why do you care?” and even her mother couldn’t provide her with anything satisfactory.
Kviye had brought it up about ten years earlier, before her mother had fallen sick with the grey, when her parents decided she was old enough to learn the family business and she started accompanying her mother on her flights as co-pilot.
“Ma, so how old is this skiff anyway?” Kviye had asked, running her hand over the main console, her fingers tracing buttons that had probably long lost their original colour.
“I’m not sure,” her mother answered, not taking her eyes off the view outside. “It must’ve been in our family for, well, at least a hundred generations.”
Kviye sighed. “Yes, but who built it?”
“Someone who knew what they were doing.” Her mother smiled, and then gently tapped one of the displays on the console. “Hey, are you going to watch that gauge?” Kviye had snapped out of her daydream, about the ancestors that must have built the skiffs and taken their secrets with them, and pressed a lever to correct the ship’s vibration before the turbulence had truly kicked in.
It was the same gauge that was bothering her now, and she corrected for the strong winds coming off the sea. The pale walls of Zhakitrinbur glimmered in the distance, nestled against a vast ocean that contained nothing but the opposite side of their continent. Her and Valyen had spent many evenings of their childhood lying on the rooftop of Valyen’s family’s garage staring out over the dark expanse of water, with the perforated black blanket of sky overhead. Valyen had wondered about what lands may lie beyond the horizon, and while she gradually accepted the fact that the only land peaking above the waves on the moon was theirs and had turned her thoughts inward, to the garage downstairs and her growing list of responsibilities, Kviye’s own questions instead grew until their enormity dwarfed her life on Tanfana and threatened to push her from the shrunken rock.
Last Thursday I started a new exciting chapter in my writing journey. Technically, this chapter started way back in 2019, but for a multitude of reasons, including naïve planning and overcommitting, that chapter had to be put on held after, well … one chapter. I’m talking about my science fantasy web serial, The Bloodlet Sun, which returned last week for regular weekly updates.
My first attempt at running a web serial was ambitiously launched here last year and concluded with me posting Chapter 1 in three parts. At that point, I’d run out of runway – with no buffer and facing the challenge of writing to a deadline, which had never worked well for my creative process. Now, more than a year and a half later, I’m once again returning with the ambitious commitment of delivering regularly weekly updates every Thursday. You can read Part 1 of Chapter 2 here, or jump right to the beginning of Chapter 1, depending on where you’re at.
I’ve got a couple of reasons to believe that this time will be different.
Since concluding Chapter 1, and especially over the last few months, I’ve built up a strong buffer, which should not only pick up the slack when life gets in the way of my writing, but also provides a safety net that means I don’t have to be overwhelmed by the pressure to keep writing the story because I’ve committed to delivering. So far, I have enough content to last through the end of the year, and I’m pumping out more material consistently every week.
I have learned a lot, about my story, my writing process and myself as a writer over the last year and a bit. I have a better idea of how the story should get to where I want it to go. I have a looser approach of writing as I go, yet also knowing how to keep the story coherent. I don’t have the benefit of writing out a whole “book” at the same time, so it took a bit of time forthis “plotter” to get comfortable with the level of “pantsing” (from “flying by the seat of your pants”) that this work requires. I also have a better handle on how to manage my creative process, by using multiple projects and weekly writing goals to keep myself motivated and producing at workable levels. All this has come together to make me a more efficient and productive writer, and the amount I’ve been able to produce over the last few months illustrates this quite starkly. I finally feel like I’m in a position to commit to a regular online serial.
I’ve never truly seen myself as a genre writer. The two novels I’m currently working on I have been describing as “literary fiction” no matter how nebulous and ill-equipped to describe works that fall under it this category is. Recently, I tried this label on for size in the online writing community, and quickly found out that my understanding of literary fiction had been mistaken. Not only that, but the associations with this genre aren’t all positive. For these reasons, I’ve realized that “contemporary fiction” is probably a better label. It’s a similarly vague catchall genre, but I think it fits better with my writing. I have some genre elements even in my contemporary fiction works as well, but I don’t think they’re enough to tip them into any other specific label.
Despite the majority of my work current taking place within this contemporary fiction non-genre, I did, however, start of as being primarily a science fiction writer back when I was churning out short stories in high school, so that aspect of my writing never left me. And as the lingering byproduct of a youth spent fantasizing about galaxy-spanning adventures like Star Wars and alien intrigue like Babylon 5, even as my writing moved on from the genre, The Bloodlet Sun and the occasional short story remained.
For The Bloodlet Sun, up until recently I’ve described it as “science fiction” but the more I reflect on the main elements of the story and my experience with different genres, I think “science fantasy” is more accurate. Never thought I’d dive so deep into all these labels, but whatever you want to call it, a couple of years ago I decided that this web serial would be my unapologetic outlet for my first writing love, and it’s my sincerest hope that it’s here to stay.
If you’re already reading, I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Chapter 2 and its introduction to Kviye, my second POV character, and if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll tune and join me in this project.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I have something for you here.”
The call had woken Kviye up, and only a hint of blue light was streaming in through the window, but even through the sleepy fog, Kviye realized immediately what Valyen was talking about and sat up in bed.
“Are you serious?” Kviye asked, peeking through the window to see if the skiff was parked outside.
“They said it was completely spent and still charged me three thousand for it.”
“Three?” She had to admit the price made her hesitate, for the briefest moment; with her father not using the skiff, she might actually have it in her hands within hours. “I really owe you one Val.”
“Yeah you do. Three thousand, like I said.” Valyen may have had her reasons to be short, yet Kviye knew if anyone would let her take however long she needed to pay them back without interest, it would be Valyen. “Now get this thing off my hands before I change my mind and toss it in the river.”
Valyen’s voice on the line sounded distant; likely storms brewing over the marsh flats, which would slow her flight, so she wasted no time and was already putting on her clothes as she answered, “I’ll be there in a couple.”
“Right.” There was a pause before Valyen finally dropped the call, during which Kviye could almost feel the pain on the other end of the line, but any sympathy she felt for Valyen was drowned by her own excitement. Valyen made no secret of the fact that she thought Kviye’s plan was stupid, and that it would probably kill her, and frequently voiced her displeasure at Kviye’s unwavering commitment to her idea. And even though Kviye respected the concerns of her oldest and closest friend, by her estimation, this should have been the last piece she needed to answer a question that had preoccupied her ever since she could remember.
Kviye walked along soft damp earth in the direction of the skiff’s hangar. Shreds of mist rolled across the fields outside their house as unseen creatures chattered from dense shrubs and sang their morning song. The whole world was drowned in shades of green and blue, including the exterior of the hangar, which had grown slick with moss, and Kviye promised, probably for the tenth time, that she would clean it when she had a spare minute. The only exception was the skiff itself, which strikingly stood out in its dull silver sheen, a metal bird with a flat bill and wide behind, two narrow wings tucked at its sides. There were only two such skiffs in her town, among no more than a couple of dozen left spread across the whole moon, with this one having been in her family for generations.
Her father was likely in town, starting the morning early in search for new jobs. The day in Zhakitrinbur, on the other hand, was already in full swing. Not that Valyen was ever one to have much consideration for the time difference, but waking Kviye up before dawn meant that she may have been serious about changing her mind any minute and trashing Kviye’s prize before she got a chance to get her hands on it, so she picked up her pace even as her boots sank into the ground.
She could have called up her father and let him know she was taking the skiff out on the off-chance some rush job came in that couldn’t wait for her to bring it back in. Unlike Valyen, though, he hadn’t been aware of her plans beyond the mere suggestion of a hopeless dream, so explaining why she had to jet to Zhakitrinbur on such short notice would have invited too many unwanted questions.
Kviye’s father had always had a persnickety approach to the business, even though it was her mother, who was raised from childhood to be a pilot, who was the one that made the difficult last-minute decisions to make sure cargo and skiff arrived on time and in one piece. Kviye’s father was perfectly content to stay on the ground. What he had trouble with, was dealing with the lack of control, so he threw his energies into meticulous ledgers that grew like voracious fungus in his office and around his desk and led to more than one argument between her parents about flight schedules and route efficiencies. After her mother had died, and Kviye took over as pilot, her father had no longer kept as much of a watchful eye on the details and numbers, and seemed merely content that his daughter returned safely after every flight rather than get into the sporting rivalry he seemed to have carried on with his spouse. Trade between the three major cities on the moon was fairly sparse, especially during the stormy season and passengers infrequently needed a ride to some remote destination that would justify paying for a skiff flight. Any business was good business these days, and she hoped it would be a slow morning, because even she would have a hard time facing her father over a lost fare.
The dew coalesced and dripped off the skiff’s access ramp as it lowered towards the hangar floor. Kviye walked up into the cargo hold that took up most of the area inside the ship. These days, it had been mostly stripped bare, save for a few seats for passengers, while the rest was allotted for cargo. The hold below was also mostly empty, though she observed that its configuration and wall paneling was markedly different from the other storage space, leading her to suspect it was once suited for some other purpose. As she walked towards the cockpit she imagined most of the area taken up by seats, her ancestors huddled together side-by-side as the ship hurtled them across lightyears from their home towards dark unknown reaches of space. At least, unknown then, and now known to her and her people, the only world they knew even though a great busy universe was bustling next door to them.
When I started writing my web serial The Bloodlet Sun in earnest is when I realized how difficult naming is in a sci-fi universe. It was one of the aspects of worldbuilding that initially held me back from sitting down and actually putting plot to paper and even when I bit the bullet the names still trickled out like molasses. And this doesn’t just apply to character names either. Every species and minor planetoid gets named only after an agonizing process that probably doesn’t need to be so agonizing, but that’s how I am. So I get that it’s difficult, and I get that certain shortcuts need to be made. Especially in something like Star Wars novels where characters hop from rock to rock at such a pace it’s sometimes hard to name that rock before they land on it.
Recently I’ve been reading one such novel – Catalyst by James Luceno, which serves as a prequel to the Rogue One film and follows the rise of Orson Krennic and Galen Erso’s involvement in the Death Star project. I hadn’t grown up on Star Wars novels in general, so I don’t read them that often, but when I do, they’ve been a fairly enjoyable experience.
As with any Star Wars writer, Luceno has the unenviable task of putting together a cohesive story that does not trample on any other established aspects of the Star Wars universe. To make the task easier, I found that most of the planets that serve merely as plot devices are created off-hand specifically for the novel itself, which means the author has quite a few planets they have to name without really needing to think of a long story or a full worldbuilding session. A good shortcut to do this is to find words that already sound natural in human language and provide slight modifications to them.
Some examples from the more mainstream Star Wars universe come to mind – Luke’s home planet of Tatooine was named after its filming location of Tataouine in Tunisia. Mustafar, which is the lava planet that saw the true birth of Darth Vader, was likely inspired by “Mustafa” the anglicization of an epithet of Muhammad.
In a less direct example from my favourite sci-fi series, Babylon 5, two species’ names bare a striking resembles to words existing in the English language. “Narn” is one letter away from “barn” and “Vorlon” is two letters away from “Gorgon”. Neither word is so similar to the original that it immediately invokes it, but both use structure already acceptable to the English-attuned ear.
It makes sense to piggyback on existing words to create names for alien words without sounding like you’re trying too hard – something I think I still need to learn. But at the same time, one particular example in Catalyst I think went too far.
Mind you, my bar when it comes to this kind of stuff is set fairly low. Only a couple of pages before the hard brakes on my immersion, the reader encounters a planet called “Kartoosh” – obviously inspires by the word “cartouche”, which is, honest to goodness, I’m still not sure what it is, but seems to commonly refer to a hieroglyphic depiction of a scroll. Oh, it was also a very mediocre 90s Eurodance group, which is how I first encountered the word. So for me, it wasn’t exactly an unknown entity, but the liberal change in spelling helped me move beyond that. That is, until I encountered the planet of “Samovar”.
This. This is a samovar:
It’s basically a traditional Russian tea kettle. It’s like if your characters travelled to the planet “Microwave” or the city of “Colander”. Unlike with Kartoosh, there was no attempt to mask the origins: Luceno could have gone with “Samofar”, “Samobar” or “Zamovar” – all probably would have flown under my radar. Nope, it was just straight up “samovar”, take it or leave it. Unfortunately, my brain left it, and every time I read the planet’s name I giggled internally.
Like I said at the beginning, I get it. It’s hard coming up with original alien names that don’t sound forced. But now every time I think back on this book I’m going to think of a massive ornamentally decorated kitchen appliance floating in space. So that’s a lesson learned for my own writing as well – there’s no problem with looking at someone else’s homework, but change a few answers to make sure the teacher doesn’t catch you cheating.
In the early days of the pandemic, when the uncertainty and newness of the situation was bearing down on me in full force, I talked about here on several occasions how it had been killing my productivity. I wrote almost nothing for the entire month of March and felt only spurious signs that I would ever get out of this funk.
Months have passed, and I’m happy to say the writing funk has not only passed, but transformed itself into a frenzy, as evidenced by the last four months of my bullet journal productivity tracker:
This productivity tracker is one my favourites, obviously not because it’s pretty or elegant, but because it gives me such a good bird’s eye view snapshot of how much I’ve accomplished. I’ve introduced it in more detail in an earlier entry, but the basic summary of how it works is: the little numbers on the left-hand side represent the day of the month, and each column is devoted to a type of writing activity. The dots in the boxes means that I didn’t do that particular activity that day, a checkmark means I did, and a number represents the specific word count, if applicable.
As you can see, April was still a recovery month from the doldrums of March. The later months are much stronger, while the heavy stretch in July represents some of the best writing weeks of my life. Those last couple of weeks, I routinely hit more than a thousand words per day, which I know for some writers is the bare minimum goal, but for me is a relatively rare occurrence. I don’t really have set goals per day though I have an idea of how many words I want to hit based on how busy the day is going to be or the headspace I’m at. I’ve talked before how I’m not really a believer in daily word counts as I think there’s a risk that they become counterproductive for a writer. As you can see from the bujo spread – I usually take weekends off, and even though I have discovered time to write on the weekends, they tend not to be my most productive days.
I did however, recently implement weekly writing goals for my specific projects. Since I’m juggling so many at once, I find that tracking a reasonable weekly goal helps me make sure that none of them slip through the cracks, so I find these, on a balance, to be more of a motivator than a demotivator. Not to mention that it also helps me to keep on top of the buffer for The Bloodlet Sun, since I promised myself I won’t be dropping the ball on its updates this time.
The previous time I talked about this particular bullet journal tracker – I didn’t include word counts and the whole thing was checkmarks. Switching to word counts had actually helped me immensely with my weekly word count goals. I made a few attempts to track my weekly goals in my Moleskine notebook instead, but they were too disorganized to stick. Instead, looking at the word count in the project columns of my bujo tracker gives me a real quick look into which projects have reached their goals and which ones need more work, allowing me to prioritize and vary throughout the week, something that has helped me immensely with writer’s block.
One last thing I want to mention about this particular spread, is that in June you will see I added a new column for “Dad Project”. I lost my dad three years ago to cancer, and we had a complicated relationship, so I’m using this for now to reflect and I’m still experimenting with how it will develop.
So as you can see, the tracker is also customizable in terms of projects as these can be added and dropped every time you fill in the columns for each month. This is just one way to track writing productivity, and I hope you might be able to take some inspiration from it.
I’ve had a recent infatuation with voice memos to aid my writing process. I’m a firm believer that a writer’s experience is not measured strictly in the number of words they write. Any amount of our day may be spent consuming other content, whether that be media, news, or simply living, which would then be absorbed into our creative process. For this, boredom is a writer’s great friend, but how many of you had a good idea for a sentence, a scene or a bit of dialogue, and the next time you’re on the computer, it’s gone? It’s not bad enough that you’ve missed out on a potentially good idea, but remembering that there had been an idea in the first place is what really hurts.
In order to try to avoid this problem, I carry around a little black Moleskine notebook wherever I go. I’ve accumulated a whole mass of these which I’m sure will be valuable collector’s items when I inevitably (delusions of grandeur incoming) become a world-famous celebrity author who donates mementos of his career to charity auctions. I still stand by my little books, but recently I’ve found that voice memos are also an excellent option.
The biggest challenge in using memos is having to listen to the sound of your own voice, which probably for some people will be a show-stopper and honestly, I don’t blame you. That guy sounds effing weird. However, once I got over this particular hurdle and accepted that I don’t have a career in radio (or in podcasts, to use a more contemporary equivalent), voice memos have quickly become a staple of my writing process.
Many years ago I used to own a handheld dictation machine. I came into possession of such an item to try to deal with a bullying problem I experienced when I first arrived in Canada, which is a long story in and of itself but suffice it to say, having it in my pocket only worsened my bullying. In the years that followed, I occasionally dusted it off and tried to use it for my writing, but having to rewind the tape back and forth, and the aforementioned hang-up about hearing my own voice which I didn’t quite get over until I stopped giving a shit sometime in my thirties, it never caught on.
Now we’re living in an age far removed from my quaint magnetic tape dictation device. I don’t know about Android phones, but my iPhone comes with a handy Voice Memos app. It doesn’t do much, but it gets the job done. Scrolling through the recording is easy, as is recording over parts you’ve already recorded.
I wish it also came with the option of slowed-down replay, and I’m sure there’s other apps out there that can do just that, so I’m open to suggestions.
Best part of using voice memos is that so many of your daily activities can be co-opted into the service of your writing. A common time for me to do this is while I’m washing the dishes in the evening – not exactly the most stimulating task, so my brain often goes into creative mode. Having a phone nearby to record thoughts makes sure that creative churning doesn’t go to waste.
A car is another place where the mind often wonders. Once I get to my destination, I spend a minute or two dictating everything I thought of on my way there before getting out of the car, and boom, writing done during a time that would otherwise have nothing to do with it.
Normally, when I go on my morning runs, I listen to audiobooks, but I imagine someone else might find it helpful to run these notes during exercise too.
The limits here are convenience of accessing a phone and your imagination, so make the best of it.
I found that there’s two ways of using voice dictation to assist later writing: actual sentences and broad strokes.
Creating actual sentences is pretty self-explanatory – the writing is developed in my head, sometimes going through several iterations or part-sentences before it fully forms, and once I have the actual sentence, I record it with the voice memo, and move on to the next sentence.
Broad strokes, by contrast, doesn’t contain any usable writing. It sets the motions of the scene, the gist of what has to be said, but otherwise the actual writing process would need to occur at a later time.
Of course, what ends up happening is a bit of a mix. Sometimes a sentence doesn’t quite fall into place while the next one is bursting to come out, so I dictate a placeholder note. And sometimes when I intend to do a broader outline, a sentence just comes to me so I dictate it verbatim to not waste that little spark of creativity.
Depending on which method you use above, the transcription process is going to look different. With actual sentences, your role is pretty much just type out what you said, maybe editing here and there if you feel that with the benefit of hindsight that the writing could be better. This is perfect for those times when your muse is snoozing – might as well use your writing time productively without worrying what’s coming out onto the page. I’m a fairly decent typist, though I can’t keep up with my spoken speech – I tend to slow down my dictation if I have the opportunity, but sometimes I want to get it out fast and, in any case, I can never slow myself down enough.
For a broad strokes outline, the writing process itself will necessarily be a bit more involved – with creative writing being built on top of what was dictated earlier. In this case, speed of dictation matters less. Usually I play a prompt in its entirety and then set down to fleshing out the writing.
All-in-all, this method allows me to maximize the time I spend on writing activities and use my day more efficiently, especially since between a full-time day job and kids, those writing moments are precious and few.
Having extolled the virtues of voice memos, they will never fully replace my precious little black notebooks. Sometimes, you’re just not in a spot to whip out a phone and start talking into it. I may have less hang-ups about hearing my own voice but no one’s going to be listening to me dictate my creative writing on a busy bus, especially when it’s dialogue and it will look like I’m either trying to cover up that I’m talking to myself, or having a super weird conversation on the phone. Pulling a small notebook out of your pocket is far more discreet, even if I’ve been asked multiple times why I’m writing in my passport.
Also, writing in a notebook is far more user-friendly when you’ve got a random assortment of sentences and ideas that just need to be put down, rather than a single block of writing. These would be far easier to navigate in written form than in voice memos, and it also makes it easier to manage several projects at the same time.
As I was writing this entry, I was met with a cautionary tale that I feel obligated to share – I sat down to transcribe a four-minute voice memo, and discovered that it had somehow become corrupted, and all its content was erased. That was about an evening’s chores worth of ideas blasted out of existence. I managed to scrape out of my memory the gist of what I wanted to lay down, but not only was this an unnecessary double effort and therefore waste of time, but I know there were a few choice sentences there that were lost forever.
So I stand by everything I said above, but technology is technology and is often unreliable in the worst ways. Again, if there’s perhaps a more reliable voice memo app out there, I’m open to your suggestions.
I’m happy and excited to announce that my sci-fi web serial, The Bloodlet Sun, is returning for regular weekday updates on Thursday, September 10th.
I released a short inaugural chapter on here last year, but a lack of buffer and writing production derailed the project into a prolonged hiatus. I toyed with the idea of re-releasing that first chapter as part of the refresh and in the end decided that I would sooner focus on the way forward instead of looking too far back. So after more than a year-long break, the next segment that will be released will be the first part of Chapter 2, which will be posted in 7 weekly segments.
I have a good feeling about this second attempt at a regular run for The Bloodlet Sun. By the time it launches in September, I should be sitting on a 20-week buffer, and my writing production has never been better. Chapters will follow different POV characters and will be divided into segments of 850-1100 words. I wish I could release bigger chunks, but between having a day job and being a dad, I simply can’t ramp up my writing activity any higher right now. So it would be a choice between larger segments, and a bi-weekly update. And since I think waiting two weeks for an update is too much “out of sight, out of mind” I opted for the shorter interval. Comparing the content though to a comic that releases weekly, I think I have enough there to satisfy readers from update to update.
Ideally, I would switch to maybe somewhat smaller segments with a twice-a-week schedule, but these are future goals and I’m taking this one step at a time to try not to overwhelm myself.
Those of you that have been following, you would have seen that I’d been very busy on this project. I’ve been brainstorming character names, worldbuilding like crazy, and about a month ago the whole work had undergone a name change. It’s still growing on me, which is not much of a surprise since the obsolete name had been with me for so long and what’s helped the process is coming up with a spiffy new title card for The Bloodlet Sun:
This was my own rudimentary photoshop skills at work, so don’t laugh. I’m permitting myself to be proud of it regardless and it should be enough to help me to promote the serial on Twitter and elsewhere.
And before anyone else says it, I’m very well aware that spellcheck is not entirely happy with the word “Bloodlet”, even though it is, as they say, a perfectly cromulent word, which itself is not flagged by spellcheck, a fact that makes me very happy.
As you can imagine, I’m bursting to share more of the story itself and talk about the characters and other elements of the story. That said, I want to wait before the story releases to get into any details. So stay tuned for September 10th and hope to see you all here when it comes out.
Despite the fact that I don’t bring it up here all that often, I’m still very much working on my first novel. The reason it doesn’t really come up is that it has been undergoing an editing process for more years than I’m willing to count. It may not be as glamorous as using Google Street View to explore the streets of Moscow, or coming up with character names for a sci-fi setting, but it’s honest work.
I feel writers generally steer clear of discussing editing or even acknowledging its existence. Sure, there are those strange creatures that profess to actually enjoy it, but those people are either lying, or are gluttons for punishment. Editing is grinding work; it’s tedious and sometimes mentally crushing. It’s where all the self-doubt and self-criticism that I would normally block out come to roost and become an essential part of the craft. Was that the right word? Does this sentence make sense? Is the pacing of this chapter off? Is there even a point to this novel or should I send it to the proverbial trash bin and take up knitting instead? (I should take up knitting anyway, but that’s a different story).
I share insights into my editing process here and there – from general advice to how I use word clouds to clean up my writing, but beyond that, I have a hard time describing the process. You just dive into your work and comb through it, over and over until all the tangles have disappeared and it’s as perfectly coiffed as Tan France’s hair (if you don’t get this reference I recommend binging “Queer Eye” on Netflix, or if you're that short on time, at the least check out the following few seconds of Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” music video). For me, I find I have too focus on the blemishes too much and it becomes too easy to lose sight of how my work can ever reach the stage when I’m satisfied with it.
When it comes to Wake the Drowned, I currently only have one chapter left before I complete the fifth draft. In terms of next steps, I already have one wonderful friend who provided me with detailed beta reader comments, with more hopefully drifting in. As far as I can tell, though it’s hard to predict with these things, I’ll need another three edits at most, ideally two, so either way, the job is well more than halfway done. That said, at my pace that could still be another two years.
I’ve got some mixed feelings about this edit. Some stretches are turning out really well – two or three pages can go by with only a few minor revisions. Other sections are still giving me serious pacing concerns. I think one of the main focuses of the next edit should be aggressive deleting, which may put me in trouble with the word count, but I can solve that problem when I come to it.
I’ve been with this project for so long it’s hard to conceive that one day, win or lose, it will be set aside as the best I can do for this story. My sincerest hope is that I will be able to share it with the world, but if not, at least it will live on in the rest of my writing through the lessons I learned along the way.
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.