Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Sometimes Iâm a bit envious of those who write for pure enjoyment and self-fulfillment, without any intention of their writing being shared beyond them or perhaps a close group of friends and family. I feel like thereâs a certain purity to their art and a freedom to their craft that I canât experience. Iâve always wanted to write in order to be read; to touch people with the stories that I tell. Iâve yearned to be published for that reason, and will continue to strive to do so even in the face of the darkest aspect of this dream â there is no writing for publication without rejection.
Those of you like me whoâve been knocking at the industryâs door will know the feeling of endless frustration. Of sending out the fruits of your labour only to watch them be discarded at your feet to ferment into doubt and fear. I like to think Iâd grown a pretty thick skin over the years, watching short stories I think are my best work get rejected by dozens of journals. Sure, it gets a little overwhelming thinking about it in its totality, but each individual âno thank youâ doesnât really affect me anymore.
As Iâve recently learned, with exceptions.
Sometime early on during the pandemic, I learned that a local (and I use this term loosely â theyâre located in our province and on the same coast but theyâre still about 750 kilometres away) press was planning to put out a collection of short stories written during the pandemic. This in turn was inspired by the Decameron â a 14th century collection of novellas, which itself was inspired by the Black Death pandemic that had ravaged Europe.
Something about this endeavour really spoke to me â maybe it was because I was struggling with finding the inspiration to write while the heaviness of the early months of the pandemic set in, or because I was sitting on an idea that I thought would be a great fit for the collection. Either way, I set to writing, and even though I tend not to do well writing creatively to a deadline, managed to complete a nearly 5,000 words short story before the June 30th cut-off date.
I was pretty happy with the outcome. The story contained some elements of the type of magic realism or light fantasy that I enjoy writing so much and was a story of a contagious spark of hope in an otherwise bleak world. I had a good feeling about my chances. Mind you, there was no objective reason for having those feelings â I knew it was an uphill battle like any other submission, but something about this one made me feel hopeful. Maybe I just needed something to hold onto during the hard pandemic times, who knows.
To preserve sanity, as pretty much with any submission I make, I largely put it out of my mind until receiving an email towards the end of July saying they were still reading the entries and would have an answer before the end of August. The closeness of potentially hearing a response had made it harder to ignore. Every other day Iâd remind myself that I was that much closer to the end of August. Again, maybe because weâre in the middle of a pandemic with a serious shortage of anything to look forward to. In any case, it was an unusual amount of anticipation that I hadnât experienced since I was rejected by a literary agent after a three-month wait almost a decade ago.
And then, right before heading to bed on a Sunday night, I received the generic email thanking everyone for their patience and that theyâve selected the winning entries for inclusion in the anthology. Normally, I let these things bounce off me. Whenever Iâm most active, sometimes I get three rejections in a single day. If I let them each individually get to me, Iâd be sapped of energy pretty soon.
This one though, this one made me put my phone down, take a few steps to our bedroom window, and look out into the blackness beyond our back porch, letting the light night breeze wash over me.
It was another defeat in a long line of defeats; another stumble going up a staircase that didnât seem to end. I know there was no concrete reason for me to think this would be the one. But couldnât it have been, just this once? This was another cool project that will sail into the future without me, while I continue to spin my wheels and learn.
With a little bit of time to process that emotion â the feeling of deflation I thought I learned to control, I think thereâs nothing wrong with it. I donât have to like hurdles to success, I donât need to be able to laugh off each one. It would be nice, but humans are humans and shouldnât feel bad for feeling bad. Even if you canât immediately dust yourself off, even if you have to nurse those wounds for a while before you continue, itâs okay.
Itâs okay to feel discouraged, as long as you donât slip into giving up. I know I havenât.
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.
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.
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.
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.