Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
Recently I was doing some preliminary research for a future project that’s currently in the “dream” phase, that is, it’s not a full-fledged project that will currently take up time (as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I just added a new work to my plate and even I’m not so deranged as to spread myself even thinner). This particular line of research led me to 19th century Russian literature where I discovered a curious but quintessentially Russian pattern – in order to be a great Russian writer in the 19th century, all one had to do was die.
Some of these names won’t be familiar to you. Western readers tend to focus on those that were prolific towards the end of that century, like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, but some of these names are bigger in Russia than even the three I mentioned. Alexander Pushkin, for example, is considered by most to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature. He’s a household name with a multitude of statues honouring him. Yet, he had died at the ripe age of 37 in 1837, shot in the stomach during a duel (the 29th of Pushkin’s career) by a man allegedly trying to seduce Pushkin’s wife.
Mikhail Lermontov, the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism who carried the mantle of Russia’s greatest poet after Pushkin’s death did so for only four years, dying at the age of 26, also in a duel. Apparently, he had teased one of his military cadet school friends so mercilessly over his attire that the man, despite likely having the knowledge that Lermontov planned to throw away his shot, still shot the poet through the heart.
No less tragically but far less colourfully, the previously mentioned Chekov died of tuberculosis at age 44. And Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls, one of my all-time favourite novels, passed after refusing food for nine straight days amidst a struggle with mental health issues and a crisis of spirituality. He was 42.
The worst fate of the lot befell Alexander Griboyedov, one of Pushkin’s mentors and Russia’s appointed ambassador to Iran. After Griboyedov provided sanctuary to several Armenian slaves who had escaped a harem, a frenzied mob broke into the embassy and murdered the Russian ambassador [GRUESOME DETAIL WARNING] It was said that Griboyedov was promptly decapitated, his head displayed on a spike by a kebab vendor, while his body ended up atop a garbage heap after enduring three days of abuse in the streets [END OF GRUESOME DETAILS] As part of the reparation for Griboyedov’s death, Russia received the Shah diamond, which formed part of the Russian crown jewels until the Revolution, and is now displayed in the Kremlin.
To be fair, some folks around this time did have some longevity, including those names most familiar to Western audiences. Tolstoy lasted until he was 82, while Dostoyevsky reached a more modest 59, his health having been impacted by five years of Siberian exile … because Russia.
Aside from maybe Griboyedov, with all due respect to his accomplishments, the four I had mentioned were not some minor literary notes in the history of Russia, but were some of its biggest names, despite their untimely passing. The deaths of Pushkin and Lermontov in duels likely contributed to cementing the role of this honour dispute in Russian culture. I knew what a “second” was (the friend chosen by each of the duelists to assist them in the conduct of the duel) in Russian as early as ten years old. Whereas I’d hardly known what the term was in English until years after getting to Canada, and the only reason I even recognized it in context was because of its passing similarity to the Russian “sekundant”. It’s also why when I was watching Bridgerton and the dueling scene came up, I was bizarrely giddy with excitement before I realized I was just feeling nostalgic for a plot device I’ve hardly come across since my childhood (Hamilton musical excepted, of course).
As I mentioned at the start of this entry, there’s something peculiarly Russian about all this. The authors, much like many of their heroes, shone bright, died early and left a heavily romanticized corpse. Affairs of honour, diseases, mental illness – the darkness of the art that has become so associated with Russia is reflected in life itself, fitting for a country whose history can be summed up in the single sentence “And then things got worse.” It’s incredible how these people left such a mark on their culture in such a short amount of time, but if this is the prerequisite to being a successful Russian author, I’m going to have to take a hard pass and die in obscurity.
Hopefully I can instead take a cue from the Russian people who’d made their name writing in English. Vladimir Nabokov’s 78, Ayn Rand’s 77 and Isaac Asimov’s 72 are not exactly impressive, but are far more palatable.
Sometimes my past writing decisions make me scratch my head and wonder why I insist on doing this to myself.
Alright, I get it, as The Bloodlet Sun was ramping up last summer before its release in September, I had to give it undue attention in order to fill up my buffer. I can respect that. I can also understand that because of this redistribution of time, I sidelined my goal of churning out two new revisions for my novel. I even, under different circumstances, would have understood not even finishing that first revision, especially since we then had a baby and it took me a while to get back into my writing routine.
What I refuse to understand, as I finally pick up my Wake the Drowned again to see if I can take a crack at one more revision before going on the attempted publication journey, is abandoning that revision with three(!) pages left. Seriously, between the three pages left to edit on physical paper and a dozen pages left to input into my digital version, this is, at best, forty minutes of work. Forty minutes! When I had like five months in the year that I could have done it.
So instead of putting a tidy ribbon on one revision, stewing on it for half a year, and coming back to it with a fresh approach, I have to deal with this scrawny little tail end of my work, shake it off and dive right back in. So naturally instead of just getting it over with, I’m letting the daunting task of my next revision weigh on me, scaring me away from finishing the last few pages, even though this particular task is so small and discreet.
I know I come in here saying that writers shouldn’t see themselves as some special tortured souls for their writing. Yes, we share some common traits and there’s no shame in that but doubling down on it just seems exclusionary. And I know it sounds like this is what I’m doing right now, but it’s really just an example of my own neuroses translating to my writing work. I personally also find it ridiculous and a colossal waste of my time.
I know in the end, I’ll tear this Band-Aid off at some point. Right now, I’m constructively procrastinating by pulling up a short story that I started writing a couple of years before the pandemic started but that touches on themes of quarantine and giving it some final edits using lessons learned from the actual quarantine we’ve all experienced. Not a waste of time by any means, but still not the thing I need to be working on to clear the logjam that’s been preventing me from putting the finishes touches on this novel and finally letting it rest.
So I’ll just say this one was a lesson learned – procrastination now can only lead to worse procrastination later. Sounds like a tidy morale, but knowing how easily I get distracted from project to project, let’s see if this one has any chance of sticking.
I you hadn’t realized this by now, the best solution to having too many projects on the go and feeling that you’re barely keeping up with what you have on your plate is to put more onto your plate. This has obviously worked for me at buffets, the ensuing bellyache but an irrelevant detail, so surely it will work with my writing. Okay, yes, no rational part of my brain believes this. Unfortunately, the Venn diagram of the rational part of my brain and the writing part of my brain are two non-overlapping circles, so somebody please send help, I’ve done it again.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before but I’ve recently set out to find new audiences forThe Bloodlet Sun and joined Royal Road – one of the internet’s premier homes for web fiction. You can find the page here. It currently follows the same release schedule as my blog, but an account on Royal Road makes following stories easier if you prefer.
Growing my story on Royal Road has been a slow process, which comes as no surprise so I’m not kicking myself over it. My installments tend to fall below average in length and frequency, and science fiction is not the genre that does best on the site. Still, I have five followers, which is success any way you cut it. Looking round Royal Road for the stuff that does do well, which is frequently hardcore progression-style LitRPGs, I had a brilliantly terrible idea – to try my hand at one of those stories myself.
I’ve always enjoyed the fantasy genre, but outside of the story I’ve been telling to my kids over the last two years, haven’t made a serious attempt to write in it. This would be a great opportunity to flex those muscles, and on the off chance that I’m actually decent at it and the story attracts an audience, then I can use that platform to cross-promote The Bloodlet Sun and my other writing. Worst case scenario, the story is bad or falls flat with the website’s audience. It will get deleted and I will pretend it never happened. Either way, I would have had some crucial practice in and hopefully even get feedback out of it as a bonus. Time spent writing is never wasted.
The other benefit of this particular project or experiment, however you want to label it, is I’ve had an idea for a fantasy story that I’ve been developing in my head for years now, unable to figure out what medium to commit it to. I’m sure other authors have that dusty shelf in their mind where ideas gather other ideas but mostly dust, never to see the light of day. So it felt good picking that up, plucking out the stray hairs and dust and whatever gunk collected on it, and then actually trying to polish into a full-fledged plot now that there’s some pressure of delivering a coherent product. Not sure if I ever would have tackled it without finding the web novel outlet for it, but I am certainly intent on giving it all I’ve got now that I’ve started.
As of the time of this entry, I’m about 9,000 words, which translates to maybe 6-7 installments. However, we’re talking rough first draft here where most names are still placeholders and there’s a sea of red underlines and probably some unfinished sentences that I was totally going to complete later but “later” hasn’t arrived yet. If I had to guess, release is still three to four months away depending on how big of a chapter dump and buffer I want to start with. So it’s not exactly like it’s a slipshod hasty solution to getting more exposure for my other story. My whole writing career is a long game, and this is no exception – I’d rather take the time than put out some hot garbage out there.
Speaking of things I’m putting out there, I just want to say that this decision isn’t easy. My writing will now span the entire gamut from a light(ish) fantasy story released on the internet to my continued attempts to get my novel-length contemporary fiction traditionally published. Whether fair or not, there’s a fear that delving into these genres and publication methods would hamper my ability to market myself in this other world I’m trying to break into. And maybe the fear is justified. At the same time, I’m not a fan of trying to cater myself to the tastes of others just because they might unfairly judge me. Life is too short to hide.
So if you’re looking forward to a plucky orphan discovering the world, developing special powers and fighting great evil (stop me if you’ve heard this one before), then look forward to my own take on this, The Second Magus, coming some time this spring/summer.
I am sometimes in complete awe at the kind of technology that is available to writers on a daily basis. And I don’t mean specialized programs like Scrivener, which I don’t use because I’m a Microsoft Word using normie, and like the proverbial old dog, new tricks come pretty slow for me. What I’m talking about here are things as simple as the Ctrl+F function. Our predecessors that toiled prior to the advent of computer word processors had no such luxury – a perfect shortcut to clean and tighten up their prose. Now, you can throw in any word whose use you want to cut down on in your manuscript, and you’re off to the races.
In previous posts, I’ve talked about combining this technique with the use of word clouds to pin-point your crutch words, and also about how I’ve used it to zero-in on my uses of the word ‘but’ in order to vary my sentence structure. In today’s entry, I want to go through a few examples of common words that can be trimmed using Ctrl+F – a simple and quick exercise to improve your prose. Please keep in mind that these are only suggestions and by no means should every instance of the identified words be deleted. I don’t advocate for any hard rules, so please use your judgement.
The English language is rich with synonyms that render the word “very” redundant in most cases. “Very angry” can be “livid” or “furious”. “Very wet” can be “soaked” or “sopping”. And “very hot” can be “sweltering” or “burning” or “scorching” and so on. As you can see, there are subtle differences in meaning between these various substitute words, so be careful not to start fishing for alternatives in the thesaurus. However, also don’t be afraid of using a word you’re not entirely comfortable with – as long as you have beta readers or others in your life whose opinion you trust, they can help you refine your word usage.
As an example from my own writing, as I edited my novel Wake the Drowned, I’ve gone from 44 instances of “very” down to 15. I didn’t eliminate it entirely, nor do I intend to. Even a word like “very” has its uses. For example, in dialogue – it’s perfectly natural for a character to use “very” as there is no reason for them to talk in the style of your prose. Another potential use is for contrast, like in the following sentence from my novel:
“[…] still undecided as to whether I should eat a late dinner at my desk or a very late dinner at home”
Another good way to use “very” is to intentionally set a particular tone. For example, this sentence from the same novel:
“Middleton was not having a very nice day.”
Here, we can potentially use a synonym like “lovely” or “pleasant” or “wonderful”. But that would not have the same impact. I wanted specifically to use the word “nice” and slapping “very” right before it hopefully struck the flippant note that I wanted it to.
So while there’s a time and place for everything, overall “very” serves as a marker for where a stronger word can be used, so go ahead and make those edits.
While “very” can indicate where the sentence is thirsty for a synonym, a lot of uses of “that” are just straight up redundant. “I thought that”, “I saw that”, “I knew that”, etc. setting aside for a moment that these are fairly weak verbs, the “that” following these in most instance can be dropped completely without affecting meaning and only tightening up the prose.
The best part about this particular edit is that it is mostly easy and mindless. Although you can pretty safely go delete happy, there will be instances where you have to try your new sentence on for size and sometimes will decide to keep it anyway. For instance, here’s one I have from the opening page of my novel:
“[…] only the occasional tire swing or empty dog leash gave any indication that there were houses hidden on the other side of the trees.”
It’s a bit less obvious that the “that” here can go, but reading the resulting sentence out loud several times convinced me that it should. It is on the borderline, so if you feel like you prefer to keep it, you should follow your gut, as there should be no hard rules when it comes to editing.
Watch for context though, as not every “that” serves the same purpose. For example, this sentence:
“There’s only one way out that isn’t the terrible mouth of the beast.”
“That” in this instance serves an absolutely integral grammatical function and the sentence reads “wrong” to most English speakers. For this reason again, exercising judgement is key and mindless deleting could do more harm than good for your writing.
The word “little” is a sneaky one in that it serves a very clear descriptive function, yet I’ve found that not only that it’s similar to “very” in the sense that it can indicate the need for a synonym, but even when it can stand up on its own, it adds little value to prose. My growing dissatisfaction with it as an adjective can be evidenced from the frequency of its uses through the drafts of my novel: coming down from 249 to 77. Here’s a couple of examples of sentences that ended up losing their “little”:
“I throw my head back in my chair. It rolls away a little bit, detaching me from my desk.”
Then four drafts later we have this:
“I throw my head back and my chair rolls away slightly, detaching me from my desk.”
Sure, I’ve replaced the use of “little” with the oft-maligned adverb, but I generally reject the persecution of this part of speech and think the second sentence works much better.
Here’s a somewhat different example:
“Along with Danny, she was the last of the little dolls that Charlie’s father had given him […]”
This sentence currently reads as follows:
“Along with her husband, Danny the Foreman, she was the last of the figurines that Charlie’s father had given him.”
My problem with this particular use of “little” was that I had previously clearly established the size of these figurines by saying that they fit within the palm of the protagonist’s hand. So what is the point of describing them again as “little” when the reader already knows what the approximate size is. Ideally, each word you use serves a very specific purpose. This isn’t a standard that’s plausible to reach, but with it in mind, it should improve your writing tremendously.
I’ve pulled three fairly arbitrary examples out of my hat to illustrate my point, and there are plenty of other words on my delete list that I can profile in more detail with examples from my own writing. Hopefully you’ve found this useful, and I can certainly continue exploring this in future posts and talking about other words.
Well the good news is 2021 is a week old and hasn’t (yet) given us a reason to think it would be worse than 2020 (the opening sentence to this entry was written last Monday, two days before it stopped being true). The bad news is just because 2020 is over doesn’t mean it stops existing, which means I’m still doing my writing and reading retrospectives to start off the year, and will hopefully avoid retraumatizing myself in the process.
In today’s post I want to celebrate my writing successes of the past year, because despite the pandemic and the continuing crushing succession of rejection letters that have spilled into the occasional mopey blog post, there’s still plenty for me to feel good about.
First off, let’s take a look at the graph of my daily productivity comparing most of the years from 2005 and 2020:
2020 continued the positive trend I established in 2017 and became my fourth consecutive most productive year, completely crushing 2019’s output. It hadn’t started off that way, trailing behind 2019 for the first few months, and suffering from a period of prolonged inactivity at the start of the pandemic. But then it took advantage of last year’s vacation lag in May and once it overtook 2019 had pretty much steamrolled ahead and even the complete one-month break during my paternity didn’t change the outcome. I’ve already talked about how I exited the pandemic doldrums into the most productive writing period of my life, so there’s no need to rehash that here, but it is nice to see a visualization of the outcome at the end of the year. It’s also worth mentioning that in the same entry last year I had expressed hope that I would be able to hit 120,000 words this year, and met that goal and more with a final tally of over 155,000.
The next visualization I use is my bullet journal entry that is a colour map of daily writing productivity by the amount of words written each day.
As you can see, the legend shows which colours correspond to how many daily words, and the little black numbers next to those show how many times each colour is represented on the graph.
It was another year where red had come out on top, but with forty-three less unproductive days in 2020 than in 2019 I’ve also met the goal that I set last January to write for more than half the days of the year. You can see particularly long stretches of red around March and April, the previously mentioned pandemic slump, but also the paternity leave in October and the slow ramp up back to a normal functioning human being through November and December. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, as the baby still has those days where he wants to party well into the night, but everything will return to normal in due course.
The streaks that are more interesting to me is that concentration of blue from June to August, and the fact that I hadn’t missed a single day of writing in August. This was the productivity boost I’ve talked about, represented so neatly by this bullet journal entry. The primary goal this year is to keep trying to find that groove and if I succeed, 2021 promises to be crazy.
That said, let’s have some other lofty but at the same time realistic goals for 2021. Firstly, I’d like to see if I can replicate the jump from 2019 to 2020 and break 200,000 words this year. Maybe stretching the definition of “realistic” here a bit, though it’s not like I would beat myself up if I don’t meet it.
Secondly, I want to continue this trend of reducing the amount of red in this chart. Though the most productive year, it wasn’t my most consistent year, as 2018 had two fewer unproductive days at 147. My goal is to make 2021 my most consistent year, by a comfortable margin, so I’m going to shoot for at most 110 days with no words written. I don’t even care how many orange squares I end up with – it’s red I don’t want to see.
I’ve also met some of my other goals I had set for myself last year, like restarting my web novel, The Bloodlet Sun, which has been consistently posted for four months now, and I’ve got a buffer to last another three. I’ve made 29 regular blog posts this year, which doesn’t include The Bloodlet Sun installments and is therefore 8 more entries than I did last year. Hoping to improve on that number this year to an eventual average of 1 post per week, though I don’t expect to meet that in 2021.
And there’s the usual optimism about how far I make it into my other projects. Didn’t get to turn over two drafts of my novel this year, but I did do one, and planning to do one more this year, possibly bringing it to a completed version. And I promise myself to renew my publication efforts after somewhat of a discouraging year.
All in all, there’s reason to feel good, and I’m going to use that throughout this fresh unwritten year.
Alright, real talk.
Never in my history of my writing have I felt burnout about writing in particular, and wanted to throw up my arms and just say “fuck it, I’m never going to make it”.
It’s not like anything particular happened, more like perfect storm of consecutive punches: the pandemic in general, the holidays coming up where lockdowns have basically took a giant dump on usual plans, the sleep deprivation of having a newborn, stress eating, not exercising due to lack of sleep and therefore not counterbalancing the stress eating, reading about writers having a “barely productive” year with six publication when I haven’t published squat in two years, having a spark of hope during #pitmad and finding out it’s essentially a self-publishing scam, failing to find an audience for my web serial after three months, blah blah blah sob story that most writers go through.
I’m jus tired. Tired of trying with absolutely no promise of success; of putting in hard work where the only fuel is hope and the only reward so far has been self-doubt. When does one ask themselves if they’re good enough? Almost constantly. When does one decide to answer the question in the negative?
Not now. Not yet anyway.
That doesn’t make what I’m currently experiencing feel any better though. Watching the yellow blips of pending submissions in my spreadsheet all flicker to red. Seeing absolutely no traffic on my blog or on my Royal Road page for my web novel.
I love writing. This summer, when I had hit the best groove of my life it made me feel good, even though my success landscape was pretty much identical to what it is today. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’m just not writing enough, which is what’s leaving room to get distracted by the failures instead of enjoying the journey. Eventually, I will get out of this funk, and will regain my ability to see the big picture – that I like creating stories and playing with language and sharing my work with people no matter how few of them there are.
Apologies for being a downer, I just needed to vent, and firmly believe that bottling it up certainly won’t fix anything, and I for one like seeing that I’m not the only one who sometimes feels down in the dumps about their writing, so hopefully I can do the same for someone else.
Right, that’s my excuse.
Anyway I’ll make it up to you all with my next post which will be about Christmas lights.
As I spend a Sisyphean eternity editing my first novel, I’m busily working on my second one. It went over the threshold from “idea I’m toying with” to full on project sometime in 2018, but overall it’s been slow going since.
As a result of my weird pandemic productivity boost that I experienced in the months before our third baby was born, it more than doubled in word count and is now at a respectable 40,000, though I recognize that a sizeable chunk of it is first draft bloat. I’ve been enjoying this particular project immensely, and a little while ago I talked about how I was using Google Street View to explore the city of my childhood.
Despite the level of enjoyment and how well it’s been progressing, I have run into some growing pains, which I think is an important subject for writers to be able to talk about freely. Sometimes there’s this tendency to subscribe to one of two extremes – either you’re a writer to the core and enjoy every aspect of it because it is the essence of your being, or you’re a tortured artist’s soul who is but a vessel for your writing, which rips you to shreds as it crawls out of you. Cute, but not the way things work.
I think there’s nothing wrong in recognizing the stumbles we all experience. Writer’s block isn’t a sign of weakness or a disease to be cured – it’s a natural part of the process. It also comes in all kinds of variations from writer to writer and within writers themselves. Not every case of writer’s block is a 100% stupor where no amount of internal turmoil will bring even a single word onto a page. Nice for relatable writer comics, but hardly ever happens.
What I’m going through right now with Maple Vodka (placeholder title, so bear with me) is something I like to describe as a “working” writer’s block. Kind of like “working notice” – where you’re fired from a job but stay on for the duration of your notice period. So in my case, it feels like writer’s block, but it’s not stopping me from actually continuing to write, or rather, I’m not letting it. The symptoms I’m currently experiencing are the following:
The current chapter is overwrought: I feel like the section I’m writing is entirely too long for the pacing of the novel and how much it actually brings to the plot. It started with the protagonist going to work and then moves into him remembering the long journey that led him to this dead-end job. Sure, it’s important to establish that his career stalled, but is this the best way of doing it? I’m not sure. I’ve certainly found the character exploration fascinating, but will it fall flat with readers?
There’s not enough here for a novel: this fear is closely related to the first one – because this particular fiction feels like it’s padding word count, I’m wondering if there’s even enough idea here to stretch into a novel length, or is it all just filler? Sure, it looked good as a synopsis, and then as a full-blown outline, but sometimes when I put meat onto the skeleton I quickly run out of material and end up with a half-dead being of abject horror. Is this the fate of this particular work, or are my perceptions suffering from recency bias, and I just need to get through this stretch to greener pastures?
It’s poorly written: hardly any of us do their best work when we’re forcing ourselves. So the last dozen or so pages haven’t felt like the kind of writing that I should be doing. Maybe that means the whole work is utter garbage and I shouldn’t subject anyone to the final product. Equally likely is that I’m too close to this particular piece of writing, and need some perspective in order to properly assess its merits.
As I’ve summarized them, these might seem like fairly sizable problems. On a bad day, it’s enough to discourage someone from continuing their work, throwing it in the discard pile, and moving onto the next project hoping this will be the perfect fit. As much as I do think sometimes you do just need to cut ties with something you’re working on, a technique practiced even by the most seasoned authors, I think it’s too early to do a post mortem. Like I said, difficulties are a natural part of the process, and it’s an intricate balancing act to learn when those difficulties are truly insurmountable.
In this case, I don’t think the threshold was crossed. Why? I’m not sure. There’s no bright line test here so at the end of the day, I have to trust my gut and believe that the solution to all three of the stated misgivings is: keep writing.
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.
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.