Upping the Game

I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I think I understand now that that don’t mean a thing today.

Oh, sure, technically it means I have twelve, close to thirteen, years of experience in writing. Doesn’t mean a thing: I only have two stories to my name that I can live with, and both were published last year. There was the Michael Chang series, but that failed to measure up. So, sure, twelve years of experience pounding away at a keyboard, one year of actually producing satisfactory work. That one year is the actual length of my writing career to date. There is an old saying that betting on horses is much more profitable than writing fiction, and increasingly I find it to be true.

And yet…without exception, every writer I look up to are full-timers and bestsellers. They aren’t just lucky. They’ve got to be doing something right. Something I can learn from.

February passed in a blur of planning and plotting, interspersed with regular life. Throughout my writing career I’ve swung between pantsing (i.e. writing by the seat of my pants) and plotting. The stories I’ve plotted were mainly unwritten, when events and characters crashed into each other in unresolvable contradictions. The ones I’ve pantsed were finished…and didn’t quite live up to my vision. I spent 2013 writing stories in a kind of hybrid fashion, planning context and backstories and letting the stories flow chapter by chapter. Didn’t work. Technology didn’t work out, dead ends popped up one after another, and events just stopped making sense. So I went a different way, outlining story concepts and series with as much detail as I could muster, but producing the plot from the seat of my pants. It was an experiment, seeing if it would work and putting in every last bit of brainpower into making every word count and every piece fit. The usual problems popped up…but this time, I could go back and fix things, forecast events before they occurred, and keep an eye on the micro and the macro simultaneously. For the investment of a week per story I saved myself several weeks’ or months’ worth of do-overs.

That was how my 2013 novels failed: they ran into problems that rippled throughout the story. Things I didn’t catch until I had already written everything. Fixing the problems would mean effectively tearing down and rewriting the story. I still had to do that in the plot outlines, but fixing 200 words and 5 plot points is a lot easier and cheaper than 20000 words and 15 chapters. Professional writing is like any other small business. It requires careful investment to minimise costs and maximise rewards, and I think I’m coming to see how planning is a different kind of investment.

Beyond that, too, the plans went deeper than I did before. Target audiences, themes defining the stories, character history and motivations, exposition that informs mechanics…essentially the building blocks of concepts. In science- and fantasy-heavy settings, I’m beginning to understand that this foundation is crucial. If only because it frees up time and energy to actually write the story when I’m fully engaged in writing, and to keep the story mechanics and internal logic consistent.

I don’t know if this method words. But it’s more than I’ve done before, and with it I’ve completed several novels’ worth of plots so far. I wouldn’t say they are good but…they are better than what I’ve attempted before. At least, ‘better’ in the sense they are truer to my original vision and inspiration of the spirit and direction of the concept. Of course, the proof of the pudding is still in the eating. And that means getting back to writing. That means approaching the next work with the same spirit of experimentation and conscious learning, of new creation and integration, of building upon and expanding my current foundation of stories and skills.

I still intend to be a professional fiction writer. But that means upping my game, and maybe, just maybe, this is one small step in the right direction.