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[process] Writing the novel a different way

I realized yesterday afternoon that one reason Calamity of So Long a Life is hitting the page more slowly than my usual pace a first draft is a new phenomenon I’ve never really encountered in my own writing process before.

Exclusive of the actual plot synopsis, I have 50 pages (literally) of continuity notes, backgrounders, a cast list, a places list, and so forth. As I write, I keep stopping to check things which I generally know are there but want to get right. Or I stop to update the cast list because new named characters just walked onto the page, otherwise four months from now I’m going to either wonder who the heck Halle Wirkkala is, or I’m going to name another minor character Hailey Wirkkala by mistake. Or I stop to check the description of a planetary setting. Or I stop to…

You get the drift.

Every world I’ve built up til now, I’ve largely built on the fly as I wrote. That’s a short story writer’s technique, and I’ve made it work even across multivolume series. Not utterly so — many notes were made on the clockwork Earth before I ever started drafting Mainspring, but that amounted to five or ten pages of cosmology and weird pseudophysics. But by and large, I simply sorted things as I went along.

This led to, among other things, the memorable and annoying problem in the first draft of Trial of Flowers wherein I rotated the Burgess’ palace 90 degrees about halfway through the book. An enormous amount of directional information, setting detail, character action, even things like the angle of shadows, had to be reworked with excruciating care to repair that.

On a project as monstrous as Sunspin, I can’t afford to make errors that basic, that require so much retooling. The simple fact of the matter is I’m going to do it anyway. This stop-and-start drafting is a way of minimizing the frequency, scope and impact of those errors.

It also has the odd and possibly desirable side effect of riding my brake a bit as I write. I’m thinking more at the line level in first draft. We shall see over time if this approach pays off or not, but I suspect I’m fairly committed to it.

Interesting stuff, challenging my own span of control and revising my process in motion. Feels a bit like changing the oil and rotating the tires on my car whilst driving down the highway.

Do you write with a lot of background detail pre-planned? How big an issue is this continuity process for you, at short lengths or long?

[writing] The state of SUNSPIN

I’ve had the past two days off work, burning my remaining vacation balance before it expires at year-end. Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, along with some WRPA, I spent about 9.5 hours working on the Sunspin outline.

To be clear, I’m talking specifically about drafting the synopses of the three books in the trilogy. As of the end of my writing day yesterday, I have initial drafts of the synopses for Calamity of So Long a Life and The Whips and Scorns of Time, totaling about 7,200 words. That’s about 17.5 hours invested over the past week or so. Much of that time was spent drawing mind maps, writing incidental text in the form of continuity and worldbuilding notes, etc., so that the synopses have context and consistency, and make sense in the metanarrative.

I have one more push to come, for Be All Our Sins Remembered, then I’ll have a complete first draft synoptic outline. Plus, of course, dozens and dozens of pages of those continuity notes and worldbuilding and so forth produced in my extensive earlier tranches of effort.

In addition, I did start doing a scene-by-scene outline, but abandoned that as a false trail. I’ll keep what I started and use it to launch me into the first book, but after that I’ll likely just write from the synopses.

This has all been a large effort, to the point of overwhelming. I’ve never before needed to reach so deep into process aids like my white boarding and mindmaps. This trilogy is way beyond my span of control. That’s part of the fun. Stretching, learning. What I’m learning about outlining and planning a book has already been worth the price of admission.

Once the outline is done, and I’ve had some time to pore over it, I’ll send it off to arcaedia and some other trusted first readers for review and comment. Then I’ll dive into drafting the first book. I won’t get all three done straight through — in a few months I’ll need to go back to Kalimpura and work those revisions. My hope is to fit that process in between the first and second books of this project.

Sunspin proceeds. I learn.

[writing] And the first SUNSPIN book is outlined

With about four hours of effort today, I’ve completed the first draft of the outline for Calamity of So Long a Life, the first third of the Sunspin trilogy. There was more brainstorming with The Child, and another round of whiteboarding — though less visually interesting this time, so I didn’t bother with a photo.

It was quite a wrestling match. I’m not yet sure who won.

Tomorrow I’ll start pushing on the people, places and events of the second book, The Whips and Scorns of Time. Part of me wants to write the first book before I outline the second book, and that might even be a reasonable creative strategy, but I really want to pin down the whole trilogy in outline first. Not that I won’t be changing it once I start putting words to page, of course.

This is by an order of magnitude the most complex writing project I have ever attempted. I fully intend to fail in interesting ways. I’ll learn from those failures, fix them, and keep going. Really, I’ll only be unhappy if I fail in trite, predictable ways. Preventable errors, as it were.

In other news, I also spent several hours today with Smashwords, putting some more of my classic short story inventory into ebook format. The ebooks gets published from there onto most of the major formats and channels. Eventually, I might even make some money off that.

[writing] Another wrestling match with SUNSPIN

Another day with hours spent in the trenches of the Sunspin outline. If writing a short story is like spitting watermelon seeds, and writing a standalone novel is like biting off chunks of watermelon and spitting them out one at a time, I have to say working on this monster is like trying to barf out an entire watermelon at once, whole.

I’ve tried several approaches to actually hanging a plot on the fabric of the outline, which is largely dozens of pages of worldbuilding and continuity notes. This morning I finally hit what I wanted. I then promptly hied off to see Black Swan at the cinema, about which more anon. On returning, I broke out the whiteboard again to work through the implications of tracking characters across settings. I’m not having too much trouble managing everyone’s agendas so far, but figuring out who is where when was getting dicey.

That produced a whiteboard that looked something like the flight of the bumblebee as rendered by a drunken John Venn.


© 2010 Joseph E. Lake, Jr. All rights reserved.

Drawing on my most recent whiteboarding experience, I promptly set about cleaning up the mess in an electronic file using the Drawing function of Google Docs. This created its own information management problems. The Child was moved to critique my visualizations, offering several cogent and useful suggestions which I incorporated. She also continues to ask excellent questions about deep background and character motivation. It’s sort of weird, brainstorming high concept space opera with a thirteen-year-old, but she’s pretty good at this.

My favorite bit was when I realized I’d had two characters appear in the narrative’s midstream without knowing where they’d come from, in an astrographic sense. The following exchange ensued:

Jay Lake: “Where do they come from? Some other planet. I can’t call it ‘Some Other Planet.”
The Child: “Just use a different language.”

No wonder I keep this kid around.

Anyway, I seem to have the first third of the trilogy (Calamity of So Long a Life) diagrammed. This diagram itself broken down into something like a three-act structure. I now need to go back to my plot narrative, which only covers the first act of this visualization, and follow the structure I’ve laid out to the breakpoint between books one and two.

I will also observe once again that Fred is a heck of a lot smarter than I am…

[writing] SUNSPIN takes shape, more, plus some novella WIP

Today I finished the first draft of the Sunspin novella I mentioned recently. It now has a title, “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future”. Draft came in at 23,100 words, just shy of the 24,000 I’d set as a target.

As I mentioned previously, this is in effect a prolog or chapter zero to the novels. I still don’t expect to actually include this in the manuscript of Calamity of So Long A Life, the first of the Sunspin trilogy, but it sure helped me set some direction. Among other things, I uncovered several more key worldbuilding issues and a couple of important aspects of the trilogy’s MacGuffins.

Interestingly, all my other Sunspin shorts seem to have tied into “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future”. Which is something I had not anticipated when I wrote them. Proving once again that Fred is much smarter than I am.

All of which leads me to reflect that my increasingly common practice of writing discovery fiction set in my novelistic universes is really paying off for me. Plus it’s fun!

Upcoming projects (as in, starting tomorrow, most likely) include revisions to “The Stars Do Not Lie”, the steampunk lost colony religious novella I wrote last spring; followed by revisions to “A Long Walk Home”, the Sunspin novelette I recently wrote; followed by revisions to “The Weight of History, the Lightness of the Future”; then a solid shot at finalizing the Sunspin outline so I can get started on Calamity of So Long A Life sometime in January.

And yes, because I care, just for y’all, here’s a bit of a WIP:

Her strategy was utterly obvious. Her tactics, far less so.

Still, her fingers hovered over the fire control interface. Indecision was like agony. The small noises of her starship echoed like cannon in her mind. She remembered cannon fire, on 9-Rossiter during their post-Mistake isolation. She’d even commanded artillery for a short while. The morning mist off the Polomoski River had blended with the acrid smokes of their still too-crude powder, that caused the occasional shell to cook off in the barrel. Horses tied on the picket line screamed their terror at the first of those explosions, and she’d had to send that kid, what was his name–


It was Shinka. No, the kid wasn’t named Shinka. He’d died, more horribly than usual, following her orders.


Cannon blinked. She was aboard Sword and Arm. Not at the Battle of Bodny Bridge.

“Where were you?” the Lieutenant asked.

“Eight and a half centuries out of time,” Cannon muttered. “We’d better–”

Her words were snatched from her mouth by an air shock that pressed through Sword and Arm‘s interior cubage like a fist down a throat. Cannon felt her ears bleeding.

She whirled to see the damage control boards lighting up. Third Rectification had scored a hit on the Alcubierre drive, apparently with a ballistic package. The delivery method was obvious enough. Low albedo, tight-beamed comms control, so running dark and fast. Maybe even boosted by a quick snap of the mining lasers covered over by the bigger starship’s lurch into motion.

“Returning fire, ma’am?” Shinka asked urgently, though her voice was like someone talking at the bottom of a pan.

“No!” Cannon shouted, trying to hear herself. “That’s our only ride home, now.”

[books] Sunspin

Apropos of nothing in particular, I now have proposed titles for the three books that compromise the Sunspin cycle. Apparently, the projects are queueing in my head.

In order:

  • Calamity of So Long A Life
  • The Whips and Scorns of Time
  • Be All Our Sins Remembered

This time, unlike my last two trilogies, I intend to write it as one continuous, planned arc. With luck, I’ll start drafting in January, take a break in March or April to revise Kalimpura, and then resume to be done with the first draft this project by summer. I figure a minimum of five elapsed (not calendar) months to lay down the first pass of this, and that’s if I write fairly short and at speed.

For those just tuning in, Sunspin is my planned Big Idea space opera, sort of a fusion of contemporary New British and 1970’s psuedofeudalism, with a blue collar tinge and a deep dose of paranoia. So far I’ve published about half a dozen short stories set in this continuity, and have an incomplete (at 70 pages) outline for the trilogy.

And yes, after Sunspin, Original Destiny, Manifest Sin.