Friday, July 4, 2014

My Writing Process (Blog Tour)

I was invited to this blog tour by friend and and writer of wonders Chris Kammerud (@cuvols).  For a good introduction to his work, check out his short story The Blue Wonder published in Strange Horizons.

In turn, I'm inviting Kaitlyn Sage Patterson (@ksagepatterson) and L. A. Whitehead.

1) What are you working on?

At the moment, I'm preparing the second draft of a near-future science fiction novel. The plan is to begin submitting it soon.  Previously (in April), I started a sequel to a young adult novel I've written, but I couldn't get any traction on it and life is looming, so I'm taking the more practical path of polishing what I have and seeing what I can do with it before I tackle a (fourth) new book.

2) How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question, because it's not something I've really concerned myself with before.  To date, I've finished three complete novels, the second of which I've submitted and the third I'm currently working on for submissions.  The first novel, an epic fantasy, will be rewritten at a later date.  It explores issues of sex and race in ways that a lot of fantasy ignores, and women--whom much of fantasy under-represents--are the fulcrum points around which the novel operates.

The other thing this novel does differently is it largely eschews the Euro-centric world of fantasy and uses geography, plants, animals, cultural mores, and more from the pre and post-contact Americas.  The other two books are a young adult historical fantasy, set in Iceland in 1898, and a near future sci-fi thriller, set in the 2030s.  The Icelandic book asks what cost we're willing to pay for progress, and in some way this theme is echoed in the sci-fi novel: that book asks what we would be willing to sacrifice in order to end death.  These themes are perhaps not so different from some other work in the genre, which is where my settings (Iceland, 1898; France and New Zealand, 2034) and characters (black, female researcher; elderly, Jewish widow; unschooled crofter enrolled in an exclusive private school) take precedent.  There are also a lot of issues of class and social order, because for better or worse these are hugely important ways that others judge us, and unfortunately by which many of us judge ourselves.  Which leads to...

3) Why do you write what you do?

I write what I find interesting on a conceptual level and moving on an emotional level. I like characters with complex motivations who have to make hard choices, between a wrong and a lesser wrong, and then have to live with the consequences--because not only is this more compelling in fiction, but it's more true to the lives we all face.  Granted, in fiction those choices are often more dire, or have larger consequences, but rarely do we ever face important decisions where the "right" answer is clear and the results from choosing it positive and immediate.  I'm also interested in lesser heard voices: women, minorities, children, indigenous peoples... I have occasionally (and shamelessly) borrowed myths and legends from non-Biblical, non-Greco/Roman, non-Nordic traditions simply because those are overly represented and overly familiar in Western tradition, whereas there remains a vast sea of under-explored, under-appreciated treasures from the many peoples of the world.

As an avid traveler for the past decade, I've become very interested in food and drink and architecture and culture that is unfamiliar to me.  It's frequently assumed that such explorations represent an exoticization or orientalization of other cultures, but I think this is an easy label and can be a misguided one.  It's not the "other" that is fascinating, it's our shared humanness; in new arts and musics and foods and beliefs we may see strangeness, it is true, but it only seems strange when in those other people we also see ourselves.  This is not always the case, but by focusing on characters who love and hurt and despair and laugh and everything else, we see not the painted mask but instead the beating heart.  This is my hope, anyway.

4) How does your writing process work?

I look at it as having 2 stages: generation and revision.  The first works best for me when it is 5-6 days a week in solid blocks of time: 3-5 hours.  Anything less, and I'm only just getting started; anything more, and my brain starts to feel mushy.  At that rate, uninterrupted, I can usually average 3,000 words a day of new matieral. Not all of it is good, however, so there's the second stage of revision.  This goes both more quickly and more slowly, because I like to do multiple drafts. Big picture, wholesale changes are an entirely different matter than line edits and original phrasing and tone and rhythm.  From experience, I know that if I try to do both, I'll overlook the forest for the trees: I'll focus on the lines, and the holistic problems with plot or character or something else will be forgotten.

So perhaps there are actually three stages: generation, revision, and editing.  When I have the chance to work full time, or near full time, steps two and three can each compliment step one, though not at the same time, because steps  two and three are very different processes than step one, and feel like they require different parts of the brain.  My eyes get tired before my brain does when editing, but it's the exact opposite when creating new content.

I'm not one of those people who has to have everything exact: the right chair, or right coffee, or right music, or whatever.  But it does help having a schedule.  Nothing keeps me from writing quite like having an uncertain and unreliable schedule; I need those blocks of time, I need the regularity and reliability--and it helps with motivation if I have someone waiting on me to produce something.  I like reading chapters to my wife at the end of writing days, because it is very useful hearing them aloud and it helps create a sense of expectation that keeps me from slacking off.  I shouldn't have to need that external pressure, but there it is anyway.  It definitely helps keep me on track.

For further insights into the writing process, check out

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