Tuesday, May 20, 2014

State of My Various Writing Projects, Pt. 2

That this subject needs a part two is surely proof something - either self-doubt or my inability to stay engaged with something for very long. Here are the other things sitting in my various Google Docs folders:

The Time Detectives

I love time travel. It's one of my favorite fictional concepts. The elevator pitch is that in the near-future time travel has become excessively commonplace. The original version of this was written the very first year I did NaNo, which was in 2010. It stunk, mostly because I fell into the trap of writing more and more viewpoint characters every time I decided to end a scene. In the end, there was the soldier who went touring with his pet robot, the detective who was trying to solve a murder, the writer who was coming back from a colony on Mars, the junkie whose time travel get-rich-quick scheme had fallen through, the teenage girl who'd gone back in time to save her father, the young guy whose plans to travel back to Edo Japan had been dashed, and probably one or two others. All that in about 36,000 words - or about a third of a regular novel (I didn't win that year either). I believe that I had recently read The Stand by Stephen King, and heard that his method of writing it was to simply end every chapter on a cliffhanger and then introduce a new character. Perhaps I'd only read part of that book, because now I see it as a very flawed piece of writing.

There was far too much going on. I still liked the worldbuilding I had done though - I liked extrapolating from a relatively simple concept and charting out all of the changes that it made in the world - and so decided to take the single thread that I'd liked best and try to turn that into its own thing. The title of that is Detective Jones and the Murder that Wasn't, which I really like as a title. It's sitting at 8,000 words and probably won't be touched again until I've binged on some detective stories. I stopped right about when I realized that I was writing in a genre that I don't actually read, namely a mystery novel. Worse, I was playing with the standard format, which I think you really don't want to do when you don't have the background knowledge. The plot is pretty simple - the title protagonist is trying to solve a murder that hasn't happened yet. It's just a matter of the twists and turns that the plot takes in getting to its resolution. Since I've basically admitted ignorance on this subject (and haven't worked on this one for nine months now) it's questionable whether I'll ever get back to it. In the meantime, I've written some short fiction in the setting with the same characters in order to get more of a feel for it.

Robot, Wizard, Vampire

I wrote 20,000 words of this in March and then more or less haven't looked back. Someone on Facebook had said that including these three things in the same setting violated some principle of world-building, and I disagreed and then started writing this. The premise is that there have been two secret societies in the world for a long time, fighting a secret war with each other, until eventually the vampires find a cure for their sunlight problem and take over the world. The story begins about three years later, when a trio of young wizards have managed to create a robot through a combination of technology and magic. Also, the whole thing is set during the 1970s in New York City.

At the time, I was thinking that it was just trashy enough to work. Wizards, robots, and vampires all fighting together? So long as you could get past the initial hurdle of suspension of disbelief inherent in the first chapter (wherein a member of the Sanguine Senate is staked through the heart by a robot forged from arcane knowledge) it would offer plenty of awesomeness. This one actually has a decent outline - something I've been trying to do more often - but eventually I realized that I hadn't nailed down the magic system enough, and really needed to do that before I continued on. That more or less stalled me out, because I didn't really find the magic system to be all that fun. It was supposed to be a perfect match for making robots, but just ... I don't know. Even talking about it now I lose enthusiasm. I guess the proper thing to do would be to write out what magic can and cannot do and then go back to it. The plot has enough twists and turns to be interesting. and it's got a vaguely young adult feel to it - though I'm sure it's a little more ultra-violent than it would be if I were actually on contract to write that book.

Oh, and two of the three teenage wizards are William (Gates) and Steve (Jobs), which is never spelled out in the text but what I thought was a neat easter egg.

Dark Tidings

I wrote a first chapter for this, which I really loved, and two other scenes, which I also really loved, but I'm having a lot of trouble making more of it. The first chapter shows two dark wizards on the eve of a full moon, getting ready to sacrifice a child they stole from an orphanage and finding that he's simply too cute. Eventually they end up raising him. It's a fantasy comedy.

The big problem here is that I'm really not that funny. I don't think that I can do a comedy, since when I look at something like Terry Pratchett I see that there's something funny on nearly every page. That seems like it would take a hugely disproportionate amount of effort on my part to emulate. The worldbuilding for the setting is fantastic and I think lends a lot of humor to the proceedings, but I'm not sure that I can actually write comedy - just as I'm not sure that I can write mystery. Drama seems to be much more my thing.

I do work on this one only when I'm feeling funny, which is not a particularly good way to build up the "being funny when you're not feeling funny" muscle. It's also resulted in a scattering of chapters all over the place without connective tissue. The plot follows the young boy who was raised by the dark wizards as he tries to find his place in the world. He meets (and falls in love with) a princess, and there's a bunch of prophecy, mistaken identity, and things of that nature throughout. Also battle nuns. It sits at around 15,000 words.

Mostly I wish that someone else would write what's in my head so I could read it.

Pax Arcana

This is another bit of fantasy. There's a large cabal of extremely powerful wizards who exert control over the entire world, and have maintained a peace for hundreds of years. Magic in this setting is extremely powerful but takes an enormous toll, and so the cabal keeps its position mostly through the sacrifice of its individual members. This was a case of me inventing a magic system first and writing a story second - something that I really love to do, since extrapolation from some baseline is a thing that I really like.

This story was actually started twice. The first time, it was a single person's viewpoint, a childhood as told through the eyes of a wizard who had given up many of his memories to fuel his magic. I liked that, but felt that it moved a bit too slow, and besides that the story wasn't really about the wizard, it was about the falling apart of the long peace that the wizards have maintained. You can't use up five chapters on mage school and a discovery of magical talent if none of that plays into the plot. So I rewrote it to feature some more viewpoint characters, with the chapters of the wizard growing up as flashback chapters. My biggest problem was that I didn't (and still don't) know where the plot is going. A wizard defects, and another wizard is sent to chase him. Both are damaged creatures, with much of themselves given up to fuel the magic. I know it ends with the cabal either destroyed or utterly changed, but I don't know how it gets there.


There are others, of course, things that don't have their own folders, or things that I just started writing with no clear end in mind. Everything else is below ten thousand words, which is about the point where I say to myself "alright, I'm serious about this one". There's the one where a small group of adventurers travel to more and more magical lands as their journey continues. There's on that involves the wizards in charge of wiping memories from the muggles and maintaining the Masquerade - something that may no longer be possible with the advent of the home video recorder. There's floating islands and robots that write novels and all manner of half-finished thoughts that make it a paragraph or two before petering out.

I really do need to learn how to finish things, but I think my biggest hurdle right now is the lack of feedback.

Friday, May 16, 2014

State of My Various Writing Projects

I like to write, but I have a problem with starting new projects and not finishing them. It's not that I lose interest, it's more that I write and write until my head gets all turned around and I have no idea whether what I've just written is any good. Sometimes I'll know just how to edit things in order to get them to a better place, but it's always difficult for me to work on a project that I'm second-guessing myself on. Here is a post-mortem of the various projects that I've got sitting in folders, most of which are in half-completed states. I would call it a post-mortem, but I don't consider most of these projects to be dead.

The Timewise Tales

This was NaNoWriMo 2013, and is currently the closest thing I've ever gotten to writing a full book. Right now it's sitting at just under 90,000 words, which is of a publishable length. The building action and climax have all been written, and the only thing that remains is to write another chapter or two that wraps things up. Most of the falling action is already in place, actually. The story is about time travel, and uses the "stable time loop" version of it; history is set in place, and immutable. There are three principle point-of-view characters. Issah is a scholar who is more or less unhappy with the hand that fate has tossed him, as he learns early on that he'll lose one of his eyes and there's nothing that he can do about it. Wendel is the son of a cobbler who spends much of the book having adventures and seeking out his lost love, Ellebeth. Ellebeth gets caught up in a time storm early on and her story is more or less an exploration of that concept.

So here's one of the big problems I have - I always have to start my description with "So there's this thing called a time storm that rearranges people and places in a timewise fashion. When it hits a city, it leaves behind a jumble of buildings and a group of people who are mutually unintelligible owing to a difference in language, from which follow plagues and chaos." That's much more of a mouthful than I really want to give before even getting to the plot of the book. All three main characters get caught up in one of these time storms, Ellebeth and Wendel get separated, Wendel and Issah discover they have a limited ability to walk through time, and then the rest of the book is about Wendel working against time itself to get back to his lady love, Issah trying to live happily while knowing with certainty that things will turn out poorly for himself, and Ellebeth forging her own fate in a destroyed city. But I can't really explain that without first explaining that there is this thing called a time storm, and that's a problem because I worry that people's eyes glaze over before I've even gotten to any of the characters.

Here's one of the other big problems I have - two of the three characters don't do a whole lot. Ellebeth forges ahead and rises to a position of power in the melded city left behind by a time storm, and that's all fine because she's learning and growing as a person. Wendel is just trying to get back to her - that's his primary motivation in life, and what he spends years doing, in sort of a deconstruction of going to incredible length for true love, but since the winds of fate are against him, there's not a lot for him to do. He comes across this ballad written about his search for Ellebeth, and tries to do everything in it, which takes up the bulk of his action, but I worry that he's lacking in actual agency, since he learns early on that he won't see Ellebeth for a decade or more - it's like he's going through the motions. And Issah doesn't want much more in life than to read books and learn things, but he's fated not to by his own nature. So for Issah and Wendel, I worry that they're not following proper character arcs, and that their involvement with time removes some of the aspects of proper characterization from them. They both behave in very human ways, but I'm not sure that it's clear that it's building anywhere.

The beginning needs to be reworked some, to more properly set up the principle characters, and I need to go back and edit for continuity because everything wraps in on itself in paradoxical ways. But there's a good chance that after some proper distance I'll come back to this one and edit it into something that works properly as a book, which I could sell to an agent. I really wish it had a better elevator pitch.

The Wayward Souls

Detective Jan-Fong dies, and two hundred years later his soul gets put into a new body so that he can help solve the attempted murder of the king.

See? That's a proper elevator pitch. It has a hook, and the whole plot is set up. You know from just that sentence that the book is probably going to end when the murder of the king is solved. That's one of the things that I like a lot about this one. It's sitting at 46,000 words right now, with the plot on its way to conclusion with a few twists and turns left, but I think that when finished it will be much, much more marketable that The Timewise Tales.

The book takes place in a Chinese-inspired fantasy setting of my own design where the soul is a clearly visible small white thing that pops out of your mouth when you die and dissipates into the air in a few minutes unless stored in a glass bottle. It's a fish-out-of-water story in a lot of ways, since in the two hundred years that Jan-Fong has been dead there have been two different revolutions within the Golden Empire, and huge advances in technology. The Golden Empire is undergoing a sort of an industrial revolution fueled by crushed up souls, and the technology to take a soul out of a body without inducing death is a new one, along with the ability to put a soul into a new body. Further complicating matters is that Jan-Fong is thought of by most people as the greatest detective to have ever lived, owing to the fact that a popular series of thirty-four books were written about him after his death. He's good, but he's not the Sherlock Holmes that he's been described as. His partner is Alana, a female detective who is more or less assigned to him as a punishment. The body that Jan-Fong wears used to belong to her lover, before he was desouled for crimes against the crown. She's his guide through the world that he finds himself in, though she cares much more about getting things done than baby-sitting him.

Anyway, there wasn't actually an attempt on the king's life - his soul was stolen. Much of the book is given over to the attempt to track down the assassin who stole it and to figure out all the conflicting plots in play. I like the world, and I think the plot is pretty sound, but I'm stalled out at a certain point and don't know whether it's due to writer's block or because it's just a hard thing to write. This is one that I've picked up and set down a number of times. The current chapter I'm writing (and the half-chapter leading up to it) have gone through a half-dozen revisions. I think eventually I'll get it. Some of the early stuff needs to be rewritten, and I think I'll shift around some of the events so that there's more of a dramatic impact, but this is definitely a project with some promise that's on hiatus.

The Gift and the Burden

Some people are born with the Gift, the ability to cast magic by saying certain words. Around the age of ten, if you have the Gift you get a fever, go unconscious for a week, and then wake up with pitch black eyes and lines of black all over your body. From there, you become one of the ruling class and get sent off to mage school. Davian and Kessler are childhood friends - Kessler is enthusiastic about magic, but Davian is the one who ends up having the Gift. The story is told through their alternating viewpoints.

This is my most active project right now. It's at 52,000 words, and I add another thousand or so whenever I work on it - about three or four times a week, I would guess. I started it sometime in mid-February, so it's been moving along at a fair clip for some time now. It's the only one that's in no way stalled, though I can already identify the issues that would cause me to lose faith.

Kessler eventually gets work as a researcher, trying to find new spells, and due in part to his brilliance (and a bit of luck) discovers a new spell, and from there things snowball until he finds the source of magic and more or less becomes the fantasy equivalent of the inventor of the atomic bomb. Davian goes to mage school and eventually joins up with the war as a battle caster. Each is an exploration of power in their own way - Kessler is in the underclass due to not having the Gift, while Davian is at the bottom of the Gifted power structure and arguably in a worse position.

Originally, this book was going to be divided into three different parts. The first part would follow Davian and Kessler and chart the discovery of a new type of spell-casting, the second part would follow their grandchildren in the world that more or less results from Kessler's discoveries, and the third part would follow their grandchildren's grandchildren. This was all laid out in a /r/worldbuilding competition submission that I did some time ago. The Davian and Kessler part just kept expanding though, so I think if I finish it, it will be the first of a planned trilogy.

Originally, the plot was going to more or less be like Forrest Gump. Davian and Kessler were going to experience every major event of their era. Davian would see everything dark and Kessler would see everything light, and in that way they would mirror Jenny and Forrest. I've always liked the idea of doing that in a fantasy (or otherwise constructed) setting. But along the way, Kessler ended up having more agency, and becoming more of a parallel to a software engineer than I'd originally planned. Davian is still a very important person that gets thrust into world-changing situations, but I'm not sure how much I like him like that since the symmetry is gone.

To Be Continued

Would you believe that this is only a partial list of my writing projects that are sitting in folders somewhere? I'll make a part two to this blog post tomorrow night. If you have any interest in reading any of these, just shoot me an e-mail. This is a very appropriate post given the title of my blog, since I am pretty sure that talking about your own writing is one of those things that gets me enthusiastic but bores other people to tears.