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Welcome to the longest-running* yet least-read** blog on the internet! Here you'll find me writing about all the things that I write about, which strikes me, just now, as somewhat recursive. In any case, enjoy :)

* not true ** probably true

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Notes from the trenches #1

It's hard to give crunchy updates, ones that can objectively measure progress on a novel. The most obvious one is word count, and it is a useful measure, of course; a book is a collection of words, after all, and the more of them there are in a draft, the closer it likely is to being finished. Currently Amra 5 is sitting at just over 11,000 words. Averaging the other Amra books, we'd get a word count of just over 70,000 words, which give you an indication of sorts. But as I get older, I get fatter, and my books might suffer the same fate.

Sadly, word counts can also be deceptive. They might not be the right words, and until a writer (ok, me) hits the flow, it's entirely possible that the word count can go down as well as up. There are approximately 80,000 wrong words, all told, from the previous scrapped drafts of Amra 5, after all.

But let's pretend that these words are definitely golden. Going by the average word counts of the previous Amra books, that means we're approximately 1/7th of the way home. In what is a good sign, last night I had a fairly brain-bending idea about the ending that I think will make it more powerful than what I'd plotted, and when I woke up this morning, it was the first thing I thought about after 'gotta pee gotta pee gotta pee'. That's always a good sign.

Thus endeth the update. The rest is just blathering.

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I mentioned flow somewhere up above, and I think I should explain what I mean by it. Basically I mean being in the zone - when I've got energized focus on the book and I'm feeling fully immersed in the story and I'm perfectly confident about what's happening as I write. It doesn't mean speed or continuous effort; I've always been the kind of writer that works in bursts. But it's a feeling that what you're doing, the story you're telling, isn't arbitrary but rather inevitable. A is followed by B is followed by C, and you don't have to give it much conscious thought. It's not effortless; I've never experienced an effortless writing session. Never. But it's more like cutting grass with a power mower, and less like cutting grass with the scissors they give you in kindergarten so you don't accidentally cut Jimmy's finger off. Or maybe not so accidentally. Jimmy was a little shit.

Anyway, a book doesn't have to be written that way, not even by me. But it sure helps.

My problem is that I've always written by what I think of as the flashlight method - meaning I don't need to have the whole plot mapped out, just a beginning and an end, maybe two or three oomph scenes, and then just far enough ahead of wherever I am in the process to get to the next scene or two. In other words, the plot is mostly in darkness, but I've got this flashlight that makes sure I don't fall into a pit or off the side of a cliff.

Most of the time it has worked well enough. I like it because it means I get surprised, and if I get surprised while writing, then there's a good chance that the reader gets surprised while reading. Sure, it's a little bit dangerous, but it has worked well enough for me.

Until Amra 5.

I mentioned that I've had to re-teach myself how to plot. For this book, at least, my old method just hasn't worked. I won't bore you with the details, but after months of struggling, I finally came to the conclusion that I had to plot this book to a much greater degree than I had anything else I've written. Not because the plot was substantially more intricate than any other Amra book, but because I kept writing in the wrong direction, realizing it only when I was deep, deep in the weeds.

Why? Because this is the fifth book in a series that's probably going to be a dozen or so books long. Flashlight plotting works for a standalone, or even a trilogy. I am here to inform you that it doesn't cut it for stories much bigger than that. You have to balance the needs of the individual book against the trajectory of the series, while keeping in mind all that has gone before. You'd need a bigger brain than was given to me, to do that on the fly.

Let's just say I now have some sympathy for the later books in the Wheel of Time series, and for George Martin. That shit ain't easy to balance properly. It's very tempting indeed to descend into minor plot points and just sort of... hang out there, where things aren't so crazy and messy. And then call it deep characterization/world building instead of fear and avoidance. You even get to point to the swelling word count and say 'but I'm making progress! This book is progressing!'

Well, your word count is. Your plot...

This, by the way, was a consistent issue with the trashed versions of Amra 5. Not the only one, by any stretch, but a recurring one. It's one I am trying very hard to avoid in the latest.

* * *

On a final note, I want to thank you folks who have left comments of support. I haven't responded individually; but it's not because I don't care. My personalized flavor of anxiety makes it very difficult for me to interact for periods of time, is all. I turn into a hermit. I withdraw. I'm, uh, working on it, but it might take me a while longer to get back to being sociable. It was worse when I was younger; at least I'm not dumping my phone into the toilet because notifications have brought on an anxiety/panic attack. I ask for your indulgence.


Jon D. said...

Don't worry about responding man, especially if it causes more anxiety. Even seeing you retweet something is enough to let us know you're still there.

As for plot etc., I always felt that Jordan had fallen in love with the sound of his own voice and/or truly thought writing was the only thing keeping him alive (his whole "I'll keep writing until they nail my coffin shut"). I still think GRRM just lost the plot, which is completely understandable given your explanation/experience, but now I'm looking at RJ in a new light.

Just keep on doing you, we'll be here.

Michael McClung said...

I'm still here. Getting back up to speed. I'm glad you're around to talk to :D

Michael Moorcock said something about when you don't know where to go in your story, descend into a minor character's POV until you sort it out. But he was writing sword & sorcery, where there's really only one protag and the plot isn't fractured like in Wheel of Time or Ice & Fire. I think it's easier to convince yourself you're advancing the plot in a multi-POV epic, when in fact you're just spinning your wheels.

Of course, it's possible to do the opposite as well. I got a fair amount of unhappiness from readers about Caida not being featured enough in Unclean Strength. But he wasn't doing anything, plot-wise, for most of the book except suffering, and I didn't want to write torture porn.

✘✘Sarah✘✘ said...

Michael, I just talked to my boyfriend Lhiewyn, he says that you should take all the time you need with Amra, and not to stress. (It seems he's in no great hurry to see her again for some reason.) If the Crusty Old Fart himself is okay with waiting, who are we puny readers to disagree? Oh, and by the way, you have the full support of the murderous crustaceans, so one word from you and they shall be ruthlessly unleashed on all those who dare voice their discontent about Amra's unintended tardiness.

P.S. Don't fret over the people who were unhappy about Caida not being around much in Unclean Strength. They're just jealous because I locked him up in my harem before they had a chance to get their hands on him.

Jon said...

Wow, I didn't realize that. Hell what did people say about Thief Who Wasn't There lol. [Which i thought was an amazing trick btw, turning a book in a series about a specific character into a book featuring (for the most part) everyone EXCEPT the main character lol.]

Sandra said...

I was rereading The Thief Who pulled On Trouble's Braids for inspiration the other day and thought I'd check to see how #5 was coming along. I read The Thief Who Wasn't There free for review back when it was new and loved it. Best of luck getting in the zone, I just wanted you to know there are people excited for it!

Unknown said...

Hey Michael - just reread the series and liked it more. Big projects are a bugger and get all chaotic in the middle. Maybe revisit your original plan? Or maybe ignore my suggestion cos what do I know. Mot importantly, I actually like amra and holgren and others too. Cool writing

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