Writing Process, Part 2

As I’ve discovered / developed my own process, I’ve found that it works much like the game Microscope—Microscope is a history-building game which is played by a group of players, where each player contributes first to defining the “book-ends” of the entire history and then gradually help fill in more and more detail in a fractal manner, zooming in and expanding on details as you go.

For Cycler Gangs, I went from silly concept to who are my characters, to what do they want, to how does the story start and how does it end. Then, I wrote a really rough high-level outline of how the protagonist gets from the start to the end. And then, filling in more detail, making up hidden relationships between characters, until there was a web of relationships, slowly being uncovered by the protagonist.

It’s a fun process, and it was very unexpected to discover that it worked this way. But I honestly could never imagine coming up with intricate plots and complex webs of relationships all at once, and it always baffled me how some novels did that. Maybe this is how? I have heard some writers talk about their process, but I’ve never heard any elaborate on this aspect of their writing.

Writing Process, Part 1

I’ve gotten to know my own writing process only by watching it unfold. I usually start with a really simple one-sentence description of a concept. For Meme, it was, “Memes in the hands of the people, changing the world dramatically.” For my latest novel it was, “Hipster bicycle gangs in outer space.” Next, I start thinking about who my protagonist is. It’s a piecewise process. First, who is the protagonist, next what does s/he want, what is the central tension? In the case of Cycler Gangs, I wanted a heroine, and I wanted her to be a gangbanger. Then, I decided that I wanted her to be dissatisfied with her life in the gang, but torn because she valued her people and their mission, even if the life was no longer for her.

As I expand on a concept, I think about the tone of the piece. In this case, I was thinking very much of the opening of Snow Crash—I wanted something incredibly ridiculous and over-the-top silly, but taken very seriously by the characters. I wanted a fast-paced patter, the protagonist immersed in her ridiculous fictional world, expounding on it through her actions and experience, so we’re there with her trying to keep up and follow along what the hell is going on, what her life is like.

As I kept going in this vein, I noticed that the world was becoming more serious in a lot of ways, perhaps because I was seeing it through the protagonist’s eyes. There’s something very satisfying about a world founded on a ridiculous, silly premise taking shape into something that is very deadly serious to the characters within it. I don’t think I even knew what the central themes would be until I started further fleshing out the character and the plot.

I ended up with a co-protagonist; a character from a very different social strata in the world—in fact, from the social strata most aligned against the cycler gangs. And she, too, was dissatisfied with her lot. This brings them together, just as the tension of their different roots makes it take time for them to trust and understand each other.

Writers: How do you start a new story? How do you go from concept to characters, plot, etc? I am curious how my own process compares. I realize I’ve only begun to explain mine, but I’ll continue in another post.


More about Meme

My first attempt at a novel after rebooting my fiction writing (22 years since my 12-yo attempt), was as I mentioned in the last post, called Meme.

It was very high-concept, and grounded in characters developed during NaNoWriMo of 2010 or 2011, I don’t remember which. The central theme & question was: “What if the average person had the capability to leverage memes to transform the way the masses think?”

Most of the characters were archetypes of my experience of living in San Francisco: The Ravers (who secretly desire to positively change the world), The Young Idealists, The High Powered Evil Executives, The Super Spy, and a collective of Hipster Anarchists.

The plot had a few major threads: The Young Idealists, who are part of a mysterious organization whose goal is hazy, but is centered around creating a meta-meme: a meme that would allow others to easily, and powerfully generate their own memes. The Super Spy helping them with a technology that will amplify their efforts. The Ravers who stumble upon the meta-meme, and want to use it somehow to change the world. The Evil Executive who has legal rights to the Super Spy’s technology, and wants to use it to bend the will of consumers to being susceptible to powerful advertising without them even being aware of it (more than currently). The Hipster Anarchists who end up working with The Young Idealists (and the Super Spy’s tech), providing as their contribution to the partnership, a meme exchange—a trust network of sorts to allow user’s of the meta-meme to share and exchange memes they want to spread.

Ok, a lot of major threads. In any case, I love the ideas in the story, but the writing is still so-so, the characters need more fleshing out, and the end-game of the plot needs to be figured out a lot more concretely.

Also, I worry that if I wait too long to finish this, it will become dated, since it takes place roughly near-future, and references a variety of semi-current events.

One note—since this was a NaNoWriMo project, I found myself getting stuck sometimes and indulging in writing sex scenes just to get the word count, in part, as a legitimate expression of the character’s personalities and goals, but also in part because they were fun to try my hand at.

My next novel took a turn to see how far I could go with that, and I’ll talk about that in my next post. And my latest novel actually tried maybe too hard to avoid sex altogether, which I am now learning from my writing group feedback is maybe bordering on unrealistic, given the characters.

More soon!

Meme – my first novel

Meme is the title of the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2010. I think it has a lot of potential and some fun ideas, but I put it aside a few years ago because there are some major plot points that need work. I also just became frustrated with my own lack of quality writing and needed a fresh start.

This novel was an excellent learning experience, however, and I managed to get a few real gems out of it; it helped me see where my strengths were. I discovered that I excel at writing dialog and if I have strong characters, I can do this really well. I realized that exposition is where I have the most trouble, particularly in figuring out how to convey aspects of the world to the reader without it being obvious that that’s what I’m trying to do.

I also learned that designing a plot is hard. Or at least, if you don’t want it to seem trite or obvious or predictable, it’s hard. Meme fell short plot-wise because I tried to be way more high-concept than I knew how to write. I still like the ideas in it a lot, but I need to find a way to ground them.

My history as a writer

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. At first, it was poetry and occasionally short stories. I was inspired by The Hobbit, and the Lloyd Alexander Chronicles of Prydain. I even attempted to write an entire fantasy novel at age 12; it was 180 pages long and horrible.

For most of the last 30 years, I’ve written poetry. I have about 30 poems I think are decent of 60 I’ve written. It was only in the last 7 years that I decided to take up fiction seriously.

My friend Kelly actually began a writing group, and she eventually dropped out but I kept it going. We’ve been meeting with some variation in membership for about 7 years now. At first, learning how to deal with critiques was very difficult, but it got easier.

My first true attempt at a novel happened in 2010. My friend Divia had told me about her NaNoWriMo experience and it got me really excited to try it: write 50,000 words and don’t worry about how much they suck? That sounded like something I could do! Since then, I began a second and a third novel, and have now managed to finish a first draft of the third one.

I’m still trying to figure out publishing. The only publications I’ve ever had were a poem in my high school literary journal and a self-publication of selected poems using Lulu (so, really, self-formatted and printed, not even really published—see below).

LivingPortraitBook In the process of writing my most recent novel, The Cycler Gangs of Beta Fornax, I developed an entire science fiction universe from which I spun off what was meant to be flash fiction, but ended up being a short story (Birthday Vacation). I sent that off to one publication, got rejected, and talked to my wife (who is a professional editor, and who has been writing fiction for much longer and more seriously than I have been), and she suggested that for a newcomer to this particular universe, my short story might need higher stakes to draw people in. So that’s about where I am: waiting on feedback from my writing group on the first draft of Cycler Gangs, and about to try to increase the stakes in Birthday Vacation, and then try to get it back out there.

It’s reassuring to see that my friend, Diana, who is an experienced fiction writer, and graduate of Clarion West, has had to submit stories many many times before getting them accepted. Fortunately, perseverance has never been a problem for me.

I have a lot of ideas for stories and I realized that it would be helpful to talk about my process, my writing, and my adventures in publication to keep me engaged even when I don’t have the time or energy for getting words on the page.

So, thanks for being here to follow the adventures of my sapid scribbles!