Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
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.
I’ve confessed here before that I have so many projects on the go it’s sometimes hard to envision any of them reaching their conclusion. That said, I’ve also mentioned that this is one of my strengths – almost a necessary ingredient to sometimes push through writers’ block. So it’s nothing I’m really in need of changing, but it does make it hard to provide any kind of regular updates with respect to everything I’m working on.
I’ve talked about Wake the Drowned, the novel that I’m currently editing and seems to actually be nearing completion sometime in this fresh little decade (if we live that long, given the year we’ve been having). I’ve also mentioned, including very recently in my post about utilizing Google Street View in writing research, my second novel, which has now surpassed 30,000 words. I’ve also devoted some time here to my “side project” – The Bloodlet Sun, a sci-fi serial I’m releasing on this blog and that’s returning for regular updates September 10. There’s plenty of other things I’m working on, and I wanted to introduce one that has been very near and dear to my heart over the last year-and-a-half: an adventure story I’m writing for, and reading to, my kids.
If you follow my Twitter, you would have noticed that here and there I mention “Cassia and Mateo” or else make other references to writing a fantasy work for kids. This is less of a real writing project and much more of a labour of love.
My kids are voracious readers. Thanks to mostly my wife they’ve already consumed a small library of kid literature and the place they miss being at the most during this whole COVID-19 quarantine is the book store. Having grown up in Russia, my access was pretty limited to old Soviet children’s books, which were adorable at the time but are like ten kinds of problematic when read with a current cultural lens, so I’m lucky enough to have been sucked into my kids’ reading world as well.
As a writer (and I use this phrase sparingly as I think in 99% of cases it can be replaced with “as a human”), something was missing. Sure, there was that one story about Petey the Pirate, who had a massive hoarding problem, and the one about the kid who ate the world’s longest noodle, a tale that didn’t go anywhere, much like the noodle, but I was looking for something bigger. I guess the main kernel of inspiration came from The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater and the Fan Brothers. I also wanted to create that sense of whimsy with a ship and adventure on the high seas. Disclaimer: I still had no idea what I was doing.
I took two existing characters, the eponymous Cassia and Mateo, from a yet-unpublished standalone short story called “River Cows” and threw them into a world filled with pirates and treasure hunters and ancient relics and magical powers. At first, I tried to do it off-the-cuff – tell the story to the kids and then write it down when I had the chance. This quickly became unworkable as the story became more complex, and let’s face it, I wasn’t terribly good at improvising. So now, I do all the writing ahead of time, break it up into smaller chunks that I can spread out through our bedtimes, and read it to them later. This whole endeavour started in January of last year, and one-and-a-half years later, it’s still a staple of bedtime a couple of nights a week.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, this has been a great experience. Writing Cassia and Mateo as I go has been the ultimate exercise in flying by the seat of my pants (or “pantsing”) versus outlining the whole story in advance. Sure, I kind of know where its going to go in general, but mostly I don’t know all that much about what’s going to happen more than a chapter away. It’s also allowed me to practice building characters and worlds, and trying on for size what makes kids excited (for a while, my reading of Cassia and Mateo coincided with my wife’s reading to them the first few books of Percy Jackson and the Olympians and there were many loud protestations whenever Cassia and Mateo weren’t being chased by some sort of monster).
Aside from how this helps my writing in the long run, this has been a magical experience. Hearing for the first time “and then what happens?”, giving them a similar kind of excitement and joy they get from other books, made everything worth it; my whole writing career, if this is its apex, wouldn’t have gone to waste. I may not be the Fan Brothers or Rick Riordan, but I’ve got the most important audience I could ever hope for. Every time either of them says “one last part” when I’m finished reading, my heart pulls a Grinch and swells three sizes.
I’m not sure what, if anything, I will end up doing with the story. It’s ungainly – at 70,000 words it’s at most two-thirds done and I still don’t know how to tie off some of the loose ends. My kids are sometimes unclear as to the nature of Cassia’s power and asked me on more than one occasion whether the story actually has an end. I’m also retconning a bit as I go, which is exceedingly difficult with kids who have memories akin to elephants. So if this were to ever somehow move forward, it would require a gargantuan amount of editing.
So there’s a chance it won’t, that I’d be perfectly content with my kids being the only ones who are privy to this story. Which is fine by me. Though I’ll never drop the fantasy of being like Wrinkle in Time author Madeleine L'Engle and reading to my kids something that would eventually be loved by millions of children around the world, it was written for my kids, and there’s nothing disappointing about it staying that way.
And who knows, maybe all that practice would be put to good use. I’m already starting to plan my next young readers project, and I’m even more excited about this one.
I would like to discuss buts. No, not those kind, and not because my kids are going through this phase where every villain from the books they read ends up being renamed to “Poo Poo Butts”. I would like to discuss the innocent conjunction “but”.
We all have our crutch words when we write. Whether they sneak in to our dialogues as borrowings from our own specific way of talking, or into our prose, which ends up cluttering it and acting as a distraction, these words are a natural occurrence for any writer. I’ve discussed how part of my editing process is aimed specifically at weeding out crutch words as much as possible by using word clouds. “Just” is one of mine, for example, and I found during editing that about 70% of the time the word doesn’t actually add anything in terms of meaning, and sentences read much cleaner without it.
“But” on the other hand, seems far less sinister. It’s a lowly conjunction. One would hardly go about trying to eradicate every mention of the word “and” in a story. So what kind of kooky mechanical advice in the same vein as “no adverbs ever under penalty of torture” is this?
I’m not advocating for the elimination of ‘but’ – it’s simply something I’ve noticed I use in my writing as a crutch, specifically for sentence construction. My recent bout of editing, from my novel, to my sci-fi serial to my short stories, made me a little too aware of using the simple addition of ‘but’ to put sentences together. Again, by itself, that’s not a problem. Anyone telling you to never use ‘but’ or to never end your sentence with a preposition are out to lunch, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have awareness of how you construct your complex sentences.
It’s like the classic advice about varying your sentence length. I know for me if I ever encounter three 10-13 word sentences in a row I know I’m in for at least ten minutes of trying to break these up into a more varied rhythm. Same with the use of ‘but’ to build sentences. In one particular short story I’d recently completely, I found three instances of the clause-but-clause sentence in a single paragraph that contained only four other sentences. There’s nothing glaring about writing out a sentence like that, but the human eye and brain is a keen pattern-finding machine, and repetition like this stands out. It feels unnatural, it feels lazy. Try saying three sentences like that in a row, and realize that they need to be spread further apart for that effect to dissipate.
Although it was a little jarring finding this tendency about myself, and adding yet another thing to the ever-growing editing checklist, it’s not entirely surprising why I lean in this particular direction. I find that one of the things I enjoy about my writing is creating contrasts and oxymorons. A lot of this can be found at the micro-level in sentences – a small twist in the direction it was taking, or else created specifically to highlight a juxtaposition. The conjunction ‘but’ is a natural fit for that kind of writing since by its own nature it is intended to create some kind of contrast.
So, with the reason out of the way, let’s not let it become an excuse. None of these contrasts or juxtapositions, as I put it, would land right if the reader was rolling their eyes at another lazily built sentence. So how do we go solving this problem?
The important caveat is again – there’s nothing wrong with using the word, all we’re looking for is breaking apart any clusters of them. The easiest way I found to do this is to search my work for any instance of the Word ‘but’. Newer versions of Word highlight the searched-for word in the entire work, which makes visually scanning pages for clusters really easy. I ignore pretty much every use of the word ‘but’ unless a see several highlights in close proximity. That’s when I stop my quick scrolling and try to figure out how to edit my way out of it.
Sometimes I’m tempted to replace ‘but’ with something similar, like ‘yet’ or ‘though’ and I’m fully aware that this is essentially cheating. So I use this technique sparingly and rather try to pick which of the sentences is the best candidate for revision and focus on that. Usually one, or at most two, sentences from the cluster actually need tweaking, so it’s not the most time-intensive aspect of my editing process.
The best part about editing like this, which is what I found in my campaign against “just”, is that this leaks into the writing process as well. I find myself less inclined to use “just” as I write, and I expect I’ll experiences the same thing with my sentence structure as well.
Sometimes it might not be the most comfortable thing to recognize faults in our writing, but without realizing them, accepting them, and tackling them, there’d be little room for us to grow as writers.
The internet can be a powerful and versatile tool in the arsenal of a writer. And I’m not just talking about Googling weirdly specific forensic questions that in the eyes of a law enforcement algorithm make one indistinguishable from a serial killer. The amount of research a writer can do from their comfort of their own living room is incredible, including visiting faraway places without ever having to leave the house. Or, in my case, revisiting long-shuttered corners of my memory in full colour.
One of the novels I’m currently working on is set in Moscow, and though that was the city of my childhood, I hadn’t been back there in almost twenty years. My main character shares a lot of the same places that I had grown up around, so you’d think it would be easy for me to replicate the setting.
Honestly, if I’d relied on memory alone, it would probably be passable. Any reader who’d never been to Moscow would certainly not know the difference, and even lifelong Muscovites, unless they specifically visited the neighbourhood I was describing, might not immediately notice that something was amiss. That is, won’t notice anything amiss with respect to the general locations and the broad stroke descriptions.
Once we dig down to the details we discover the little problem inherent in the passage of those twenty years. The problem is further compounded by the fact that the protagonist finds themselves uprooted from a life as an immigrant to Canada, and placed into an alternative universe existence where he never left Russia. A lot of the novel therefore revolves around the changes that had happened in Russia and Moscow since he moved, and the contrast to the expectations he had of his homeland after a long separation.
Memory alone would not permit me the experience to write this well. Short of going back to Russia for a tour myself, something that is presently not possible for me, all I’d have to rely on is hearsay. Not only would someone familiar with Moscow likely see through the inevitable missteps, but it would compromise one of the integral themes of my novel and would be a slap in the face of an ever-changing home city and country with which I share a complicated relationship.
So out came Google Maps. I touched on this process in an earlier post about the novel, but this time, I took a stroll through my own neighbourhood, taking intermittent moments to catch my breath while nostalgia and the slightest touch of what could probably be best described as homesickness gripped my chest. Following the path of my protagonist who traced my own childhood steps not only allowed me to remark on what has changed and what stayed the same, but also lent some more ephemeral elements to help with storytelling. A little old lady captured by the Google Street View camera would turn into a side character; a specific piece of graffiti would inspire an internal monologue in the protagonist. It almost felt like plagiarizing real life.
Each of my own observations could be downloaded into the protagonist, since he was essentially experiencing what I was – taking in familiar surroundings after a long separation. When it comes to the first draft, I’m pretty much throwing everything and the kitchen sink at it – every observation, every unlocked memory, gets tossed into the narrative. It’s probably too much at this point. As the novelty wears off and the novel eventually enters subsequent drafts, I’m sure a lot of these tangents would be pruned. In the end, I’m hoping the result is something close to an authentic experience that combines vague memories with refreshed visuals to create a picture of a city.
It’s sometimes easy to forget the kind of information available at our fingertips these days. This is an opportunity that just wasn’t available to our predecessors. To write even remotely believably about a place, the writer had to either absorb a multitude of first-hand accounts to paint their own picture or actually be present there physically. Now, for any major city around the world, a simple click of a button and we’re looking up at world-famous landmarks, sneaking around forgotten side streets, or cruising through the countryside. It’s a convenient and reliable way of providing support to a setting we may not have personally experienced.
A word of caution is that this is in no way a panacea. I’m not entirely convinced that this method of research would be sufficient for an entire work taking place in a setting that the author has never visited. Visuals go a long way but the feel of a place is harder to pin down through a computer screen. Not to mention the flow of life, its people and its culture. More serious research is required here, though I believe a reasonable product can be achieved here as well, made that much easier by all the other research tools that are brought to us by technology and the internet.
The need for proper research, and perhaps some self-reflection as to the advisability of the story/setting combination in the hands of the author, is heightened for certain settings, depending on their relationship to the author themselves. An ethnically WASPish North American author sitting from the comfort of their desk chair may be able to set their whole story in a rural Indian village or the streets of Caracas, but should they? A special sensitivity to place, culture and people is required here, and a reminder that technology is just that, technology, a tool, not the end all and be all of human experience.
So like any literal tool in a handyperson’s toolbox, tools should be used with caution and for their intended purpose, but I encourage playing around with dropping yourself into a setting you’ve never been before, and using that to grow your writing.
I got a bit of a nasty surprise this weekend. As I’ve mentioned in recent posts, my buffer of chapters for my science fiction web serial is growing and I’m gearing up to start releasing installments in the next couple of months. Since I feel like the project has taken on an unprecedent level of seriousness for me, I figured I’d do some additional due diligence before I truly commit. For years, I had been referring to the project as “Drops of the Black Sun”. I had vetted it earlier as the full phrase, and found no similarities, so I went ahead and reserved a domain name, and have been using the name consistently ever since conceiving of it.
This time around, I decided to scrutinize its constituent parts, so I googled “Black Sun” as a separate entity. What I found was that the Black Sun is the name of a crime syndicate in the Star Wars universe. A small issue, I figured. My “Black Sun” didn’t refer to an organization, and even though there’s significant overlap in genres, the crime syndicate formed a relatively minor part of the overall Star Wars lore. I concluded that this wouldn’t be a huge deal.
The other use of “Black Sun” is as a Nazi symbol that is widely associated with neo-fascists and neo-Nazis.
Cue me whispering several bewildered obscenities.
To say that this is a “problem” would be a colossal understatement. Whatever connection works for Star Wars – a crime syndicate being associated with some of the worst villains in human history seems at least somewhat appropriate – there was no way I was going to be associated with this. Not only would I not want the title of my work in any way related to such repugnant ideology, I also wouldn’t want my work to get a signal boost from those searching for the symbol, or vice versa.
I admit I probably should have done more vigorous research at the time I decided that this was the name I was going with, but I knew I had to correct this oversight immediately.
So I had signed up for a new domain name, and scoured my blog for any mention of the original name, replacing it with the shorter and crisper “The Bloodlet Sun”. This was a team effort between myself and my family over the weekend. Even the kids tried to help though their suggestions never made it into the final product.
So in case you’ve been following this blog, and suddenly have noticed this name change, that’s the story behind it. And if there’s any mentions of the original name that I missed somewhere on this site, please point it out to me so I can delete them as well.
As for the new name, I’m glad I got pushed into another brainstorming session, because I quite like it, even though it hasn’t had a chance to grow on me yet. It’s shorter in terms of number of words and number of syllables, and brevity does tend to serve catchy titles best. I retained the image of an ominous sun, though I admit I cheat there a little bit. To use “bloodlet” in the way I use it hear isn’t entirely grammatically “proper” but I like the unusual use and the imagery that it might invoke.
It also allows me to use the longer concept of the Drops of the Bloodset Sun to describe the actual objects in my world without clogging up the title of the work with unnecessary words.
So here’s a lesson to us all – do your due diligence. You never know what might be lurking out there that you simply aren’t aware of that would cause you to send the worst kind of wrong message. I’m just glad I caught it in time, and had a chance to right this mistake.
Last week I mentioned that I’ve been riding a wave of productivity over the last month. The result of this is perceptible progress on all my projects, including the completion of Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun. The only reason I haven’t started posting again is because this time I want to build a bit of a buffer first (not that a buffer would save me from a similar year-long hiatus that I’ve experienced since concluding Chapter 1, but I’m trying to be a little optimistic here). I’m already in the process of editing Chapter 3, and have also almost finished writing the first draft of Chapter 4. I’m hoping to start posting DoBS at a fairly regular weekly schedule in a month or so.
The fascinating challenge I’m facing with Chapter 4 is character naming. A lot of characters get introduced here, and even though I’ve worked on some of them for years, their names have never been set in stone. And I’m finding out that names are a big deal.
Han Solo, Kosh, Daenerys Targaryen, examples from some of my favourite works of sci-fi/fantasy fiction are memorable, punchy and evocative. In the case of the former, can be short, and easy to pronounce, in the case of the latter, longer, and a bit more of a tongue-twister depending on how many drinks deep you are into trying to forget Season 8. A character’s name is a far bigger deal in fiction than it would be in real life. Nothing in the real world is stopping Bill Jones from being the best he can be, but fictional Bill Jones is not going to amount to anything more than being an accountant in a room of other non-descript throwaway accountants preventing Stalactite Sinclair from financing her coup against a brutal dictatorship. So I’ve taken my approach to names seriously, although if my brainstorming of the last few weeks is any indication, perhaps a little too seriously.
In a way, naming the alien characters is a whole lot easier – there are fewer constraints to work with. There’s the species’ or culture’s naming conventions and phonetic inventory to consider, while also keeping an eye out for acceptable syllable structure, but otherwise, the rules here are entirely in my head. Just don’t spit out something with five syllables, three-consonant strings and multiple apostrophes like Shr’ulia’akrgi, and you’re golden. I break, or come close to breaking, the first rule with Thorian naming conventions (as you’ll see more in Chapter 2), but generally I also subscribe to shorter is better. Just look at some of the examples from J. Micharel Straczynkski’s Babylon 5: Kosh, G’Kar, Vir. All three are single syllables that are both palatable to the English speaker, but that could sound alien nonetheless.
The lay of the land for human characters is entirely different. Maybe if I was working in a pure fantasy world, I can be as unconstrained as with my alien names, but I’ve created for myself a specific setting and I have to try to play by the rules of this setting. Without going into any spoilers and simply borrowing from the general description of DoBS – it takes place approximately two thousand years from now, about the same amount of time from a great planetary disaster.
Thinking back on how human society, culture and demographics have changed over the last two thousand years, without a great calamity on top of that, I realize my puny human brain can hardly comprehend that many years into the future. So any “realism” here would be purely aspirational. Not to mention that in my perceived future the Earth has become a far bigger melting pot than it is today, and suddenly using names that exist across our world right now doesn’t seem too appropriate.
At least my inspirational golden standard, Babylon 5, was set about two hundred and fifty years in the future, so names like John Sheridan and Susan Ivanova don’t seem that far out of place. Crank the time scale by a factor of 8 and add all the waves of human migration, and “John Sheridan” might not seem too out of place, but if everyone else’s name was similarly familiar, it would seem like a cop-out.
Granted, I think I could get away with giving those names – I doubt the readership would judge me too harshly for it, but it doesn’t feel right in my own head, and I need to be fully immersed in my own world if I am to bring it to life for someone else. So, let’s take a look at the parameters I set for myself in deciding how to formulate human names in DoBS:
So now that I laid the parameters out, comes the actual hard part. Even though I have those “rules” for my naming conventions, I still need the names to come out naturally. The character rises out of my imagination – they have a personality and a history and first and foremost they are people who are alive, you know, as much as a fictional character can be in my head. Applying some sort of rule-based or flowchart-based approach to their names is mechanical and artificial.
Not only that, but developing a diverse cast of characters based on what would essentially be a checkbox exercise, isn’t exactly progress, it’s lip service, and not at all how representation is supposed to work. I can hardly claim that my characters are people first when their identity came about out of their names, rather than the other way around.
While I don’t want my cast of characters to look like Game of Thrones, or, face it, most of Star Wars, I also don’t want to blunder into this thinking that I already know exactly what I’m doing. I’m terrified of making mistakes, but I’m more terrified of continuing to be part of the problem just for the reason that I don’t want to stick out my head. This preference to do this from the comfort of one’s own experience is what has allowed systemic problems to continue unabated for so long and let’s face it, the fact that I’m even in this position is already a sign of privilege.
So, perhaps the solution is to shut up and write it, and if I mess up, to shut up and right it.
I’ve been working from home for almost three months now, and though challenges remain, the emotional weight of the virus has gradually shifted. Some places are doing better than others and I’m happy that my country, and even my Province within my country, are doing reasonably well. That is not to say there’s any reason to let up, the fight is far from over, but there’s plenty of reasons for hope – that we can come together (with notable exceptions that need not be elaborated on) and make sacrifices to keep each other safe.
Now the world, or at least, more of the world than ever before, is starting to come together to bring the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, hopefully to the point that it will enact long-lasting changes.
Exercising my own voice in my writing seems so small in comparison to the global events of this year. The voices that have been silenced and have historically not had a chance to speak are not my own and the stories I’m personally working aren’t the ones that need to be shouted from the rooftop right now.
As part of that, I think it’s also crucially important for white authors to read more works by people of colour and for male authors to read more works written by women. I’ve read some excellent literature last year that I would highly recommend, and will make more of a concerted effort to broaden my own experience in the future. I’ve been very interested in the works of N. K. Jemisin and have put her works on my short-term reading list.
With my own writing, I have been a busy beaver for these last few weeks.
I’ve slogged through the “saggy middle” of my novel, which I still think needs some rewriting, or else serious deleting, and have been going through subsequent chapters at a good pace. Hoping to incorporate some beta reader feedback in the next draft, but otherwise seeing a light at the end of this particular tunnel.
The novel that is currently partway through the first draft has also been gaining steam. I’ve had the unfortunate experience of opening up my original outline for it, which I haven’t referred to in more than a year, and now I’m questioning all the choices that led me to veer off the chosen path. As I’ve alluded to in my recent entry on pantsing versus plotting, I just have to trust the process.
The Bloodlet Sun has enjoyed steady progress as well. I’m currently building up a buffer of chapters, and dealing with some interesting problems when it comes to naming characters, which I will discuss in an upcoming post.
I’m writing a short story that I intend to submit to a publication by June 30. I’ve never been the best at deadline work when it comes to my creative writing, but the first draft is about three quarters finished and I’m optimistic I’ll make it. It’s a local publication themed to writing that was inspired during the COVID-19 pandemic, and draws a little bit on the magic realism themes that sometimes crop in my writing.
Speaking of short stories, there’s one I completed recently that draws on my experiences in Russia that I have the audacity to think I can submit for consideration to the New Yorker. There’s really nothing to the process yet somehow the very notion terrifies me and I haven’t been able to click ‘send’ yet. Hopefully that comes in the next week.
Seeing what I can do with my Russian inspirations, my wife recommended I try my hand at my own story – something about the relationship with my dad and how it influenced my identity and journey as an immigrant. I haven’t even cracked a thousand words with this, but already the level of introspection is a little uncomfortable. Lot’s of heavy shit to unpack.
Evidently, I’ve had a lot to say recently, and that goes hand-in-hand with questioning what I have to say as well, which is an active process that any writer in a position of privilege should not neglect. As you can imagine, the environment that gave rise to my Russian-inspired writing was not the most diverse place, the lack of which actually informs some of that writing. So exclusively “writing what I know”, particularly if focused on the first 13 years of my life, would result in my writing continuing to be part of the problem, which is another reason why I prefer to have multiple projects on the go and to challenge myself at every stage of the writing process.
I do hope that as I continue to pursue my passion for writing, I would be able to positively contribute in some way, and if I take any missteps, I fully intend to learn and be better.
With the current events unfolding in the United States and this week, it seems trite to talk about anything.
As someone from my background I can never understand; I can never appreciate the pain, the suffering, the frustration with a system that refuses to change. I never have to have the fears that face communities on a daily basis and there is no word for that other than “privilege”.
What I can do, what I’ve been trying to do and wish to do better, and what so many in a position of privilege are refusing to do, is to listen.
Refusing to listen, or declaring your own personal job done because you’re not as bad as your racist Uncle Joe whom you only see at Thanksgiving, or thinking you’re not part of the problem based on your own personal lens, amounts to making a conscious decision to continue being part of the problem. Everything that’s happening right now, everything that has led to this boiling over in the last week, the systems and society that has not only allowed but encouraged the problems to persist, confers an advantage to those that benefit from a system.
On a societal scale, the benefit is obvious. On an individual scale it may not be obvious, it may be tangential, it may be smaller for some than for others, but it exists. Denying otherwise is becoming a willing accomplice. Like I’ve tried to explain to my own kids, if you get an advantage from someone else doing something bad, that doesn’t necessarily make you bad, but if you are fully aware of the advantage, and you do nothing about it, then you’re being bad. My kids seem to get it. There’s no reason why an adult shouldn’t.
So it’s imperative to start by using our ears. Listen to the very people who understand the situation better than you ever could. Don’t talk over them with your “yeah but”s – build up your understanding so that you can empower your voice.
And then use that voice that you’ve been given. I don’t mean use it to spew the warmed-over vomit of platitudes such as “all lives matter” or “why don’t we all just get along” – see the part above about being a willing accomplice at this point. And don’t just be content with sharing things on social media or otherwise shouting into the void. The problem runs deep and it runs wide.
Work with those closest to you – your family, your friends, your coworkers. If they’ve shut their ears to the voices that need to be heard then be that voice, try to open that door in their mind that will allow that change to take root. It will be uncomfortable, but if you think that discomfort is not worth your effort, then repeat step one again – listen, and try to understand why your discomfort is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.
You will make mistakes. You will get called out on those mistakes. And there’s no shame in being humbled. Don’t stop listening just because no one’s putting you on the pedestal for finally trying to do something. If someone is injured and you’re trying to help and they tell you you’re hurting them in the process, are you going to argue? Are you going to drop helping altogether and walk away in a huff? This is no different.
It’s not about you, or your ego, or your inconvenience. The moment is not about you, but it is long overdue to make the moment part of you. Don’t let the next news cycle wash this away – you may have the ability to walk away when the channel changes, but that is not how it works for those who have to live it.
Make it a part of your life, and maybe everyone else’s will improve, too.
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of The Bloodlet Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
Another month gone by of this madness and I wanted to check in on something else I’ve been seriously unmotivated about, so that I can let you know you’re not the only ones out there who aren’t quite feeling yourselves during quarantine (actually, it’s to make me feel better about all my productivity failures – if I’m being productive about not being productive, it kind of resolves part of the problem). I’ve been pretty much neglecting my publication efforts for the last two months.
If I’m being perfectly candid with myself, the lack of acceptances over the last two years probably has something to do with it. I often come on here to encourage folks to push through the wall of rejections and just keep trying in the face of adversity, but it wouldn’t be adversity if it didn’t have any adverse effects. Sure, I’ve had my share of “good” rejections including one that said my story was in the final fifty for consideration. These are the blinking lights at the end of the tunnel (or the flame that attracts the moth, whichever way you want to look at it), but overall since my last publication in Nashwaak Review in December 2018, things have been pretty grim. And the grimness does get to you.
Whether as a result of the lockdowns or because the academic came to a close, but I feel like editors have been very active since March, and in that time I’ve accumulated about two dozen short story rejections. Normally, these get processed into my big glorious spreadsheet of submissions, I make notations of when I can next submit to a journal, and makes plans for the next rounds of submissions. Currently, this stack is sitting neglected next to my desk, and I haven’t opened my spreadsheet in over a month.
This makes me a little bit sad. Despite the minuscule ratio of my works that have been accepted, I usually enjoy playing the game – organizing journals, figuring out which stories are appropriate for which ones, customizing cover letters, sending my babies off into the real world where they inevitably get smacked around a little bit. It helps that I’m also a chart fiend, as evidenced by my light bullet journal addiction, so updating this gives me a certain pleasure based on that alone. Plus there’s always the promise of success – the more I send out, the more chances there are of being published no matter how small. So when I don’t find joy in something I normally do, it leaves me with a troublesome feeling.
I apologize if I’m being a bit of a downer. If the previous trend has been any indication, the moment I complain about something here is pretty much when I turn it around and start doing it again. Despite my lamentations a couple of weeks ago, I’ve slowly been getting back into editing my work, which is a good sign for finally completing Chapter 2 of The Bloodlet Sun (it’s been over a year, I should be dead of embarrassment but it helps I have very little shame) and a couple of short stories that have been “almost complete” for quite some time.
So too I think in the next week or so I’ll rip off that Band-Aid, update my chart, and start planning out my next flurry of submissions. I guess, in a time where we have to tell ourselves ‘no’ so much for the greater good, it’s hard to keep hearing ‘no’ from an additional source, particularly when it chips away at one of the core parts of your identity. Sure, each rejection is like a mosquito bite, but as someone who once went to a beach in Cuba after nightfall, I know that a having a few dozen simultaneous mosquito bites is a whole different ball game.
I guess what I’m trying to convey is that to be a writer, you need to have thick skin. But having thick skin doesn’t mean it’s impenetrable. Some things will get you down more than others, and right now I’m in my down. I know the next ‘up’ is right around the corner, and if you’re in a down, I hope you find yours too.
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.