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Writing update

Tue 22 Jun 2010 by mskala Tags used: ,

Ever since 2002, when I wrote The Fickle Finger of Fate as a NaNoWriMo project, I've had it in mind to write another book set in that universe but done properly, at publication quality. The NaNoWriMo word-count constraint is interesting as a personal growth exercise, but not really conducive to the output being a good book, and its effects show in the output. Over the years since Fickle Finger I was gradually collecting material for the next book, and as of when I finished my PhD in mid-2008, my plan was that I would work at the University of Toronto for the calendar year 2009 (details are private and beyond the scope, but I was in a position to make them an offer I didn't think they could refuse), and I'd move to Toronto four months early and spend September to December 2008 writing the book at about a third of NaNoWriMo pace.

It turns out, U of T refused my offer. I was shocked. I ended up spending September to December 2008 in Waterloo, kind of hanging out at the University of Waterloo but not getting paid (not entirely their fault - I refused an arrangement that would have seen me getting paid, but would have had other disadvantages), and I didn't make any progress on the book (Waterloo is a lousy place to write, even if I did write Fickle Finger while there), and then in January 2009 I did manage to get to U of T, but at significantly reduced status from what I'd hoped for, and with regular visits back to U of W. That is how I spent January through August 2009.

September through December 2009, a year late from the earlier plan, I took the time off to work on the book, and I did pretty well. One of my constraints was that if I was taking unpaid leave to work on the book, I wanted it to be in a city other than Waterloo; thus I didn't count the similar time in 2008. Being in the better environment did help, and I made a lot of progress. As of the start of December I looked at my word count and other metrics, and the fact I was planning to spend the last two weeks of the year travelling (partly to visit family, partly as a hold-over of some work I'd done earlier at Waterloo), and I decided I probably could push to at least complete the main writing if not the editing within the calendar year, but quality would suffer and I didn't want to do that. So when I left for Hawaii in mid-December, I set down the book in an almost-completed state hoping to finish it off in early 2010.

When I got back to paid work in 2010, I was on something like the same status I had for most of 2009: splitting time between Waterloo and Toronto. I got a significant pay raise, which is nice. I didn't touch the novel at all for several months. Just in the last few weeks I've gotten back to it, and my new hope is to finish the main writing within the next few weeks. I am already past the raw word count target (which means I'll probably have to cut some material). I'll have some spare time in the next few days as this city shuts down for G20 paranoia, and I'm hoping to hole up in my apartment and get maybe five to eight thousand words done. That'll be enough to clear all the "still need to write this chapter" flags out of my manuscript.

After the main writing is finished, I plan to print out all the chapters, spread them out on my bed, and re-arrange them until I know what order they should be in in the finished product. That's a meaningful question because I have several overlapping subplots and switch between them on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so even if I keep them more or less chronological, there's still a question of what sequence makes the most sense from a storytelling perspective. Once I've done that, I need to edit the result, both for length and to make sure all names and dates are right (tricky because I'm using a partially non-Gregorian calendar and making reference to astronomical events).

A writing project of this scope is certainly an adventure, not quite the same as doing anything else. Even NaNoWriMo was not quite the same thing, because there the plan is, day by day, make word count without writing yourself into a corner, and I didn't and couldn't know how it would end when I started. There's little long-range planning that will survive the NaNoWriMo pace. Here, I had a story idea guiding me right from the start, so I knew how each part fit into the whole, but that was part of the problem: too many story ideas, little clarity of which ones to emphasize, and a conception of what the book was actually about that changed a lot over the years I'd been working on it.

When I started out I had thought it would be narrated first-person by Flank Ploughman, and I wrote tens of thousands of words in his voice before I realized the important parts of the story were things he could not reasonably witness, and they wouldn't improve by being viewed from his perspective. In fact, in the current state of the manuscript he gets only a cameo appearance, and it's third person omniscient-narrator.

I knew from the start that I wanted the catgirls to figure prominently in the book, but I didn't really understand what that meant until, during random Net surfing, I happened to read a magazine article by a male body-builder in which he took the position, basically, that nobody should use steroids but female body-builders especially shouldn't use steroids because it makes them sexually unappealing; and I realized what catgirls are and what point I was actually writing them to make. There are several more leaps of logic involved - my own point has nothing to do with steroids - but the article was what triggered the insight into my own writing, and contains an interesting enough idea in itself to be worth mentioning.

Then I also figured out that the amount of material I was preparing to write was enough for at least one and a half books, maybe two or even more. I ended up cutting a whole lot of material that may end up in one or more sequels - though the success of the present book will have a big effect on whether it's worth actually writing any more.

In parallel with my changing conception of what the book is about, I've gone through a couple of working titles. I started with Kaago because I thought it was about Cargo, in the religious sense: the idea that if you create the right conditions for good things to occur then a power outside you will cause the good things to occur, where you yourself couldn't do it alone. I still think that's a very important idea and worth writing about, but my storyline isn't the right one to make points about it, so it ended up going. The current working title is Shining Path, which is both the name of an institution in the story and a structuring idea that my storyline does speak to: something like dharma or the Beauty Way, the idea that there exists a path of right action that a person can be on, or not. I still think I like that title, although there's unfortunately some confusion possible with a real-life Communist organization of the same name active in Peru, which has no particular relation to the Shining Path in my book except in that a lot of people object to Communism and I do intend to imply in the book that the Shining Path is not necessarily such a good thing as it might purport to be. Publishers often change titles anyway, so it's quite possible they won't let me keep that one.

One thing that's becoming a bit of an issue at this point is that my conception of what will be in the next book is rapidly becoming a lot clearer. I'm strongly tempted to actually start writing that one too - I have a lot of it written in my head - but I think it would really be unwise to actually start until I've got the current one in a fit state to query agents. There's enough waiting involved in the publishing process to give plenty of time for writing another, and having one book 100% complete is a lot more valuable for making a profit, impressing people, and so on, than having one at 90% and another at 30%.

And that's the update. You can keep an eye on my word count by following my Twitter updates.

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