John Wiswell Asked Me Four Questions About Writing!

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I miss the glory days of LiveJournal, when so many people were blogging they’d do stupid things like, “Ask me five questions, and I’ll tag in five others and answer all of them.”  So I was delighted when John Wiswell resurrected the ancients to ask me four questions about my writing process. Which couldn’t be timed better, as I’m literally at one of the most interesting points in my writing career.
(Alas, I shan’t tag in four people of my own, but feel free to play along.)
1) What am I working on?
I just finished up the first round of Official Edits on my debut novel Flex yesterday.  Today, I’ll continue work on the sequel to Flex.  Both are turning out to be really jarring to my existing workflow, and I’m trying to adjust to that.
See, as an artist, your whole job is to figure out what processes uncork your most interesting work. And one of the best things about attending Clarion, where I had six weeks with eighteen writers to see them write several stories from start to finish, was really getting that not everyone’s head worked like mine.  At the time, I was a guy who couldn’t write at all unless I had the ending mapped out, and I wrote in Word from start to finish, and I thought that everyone did that.
No.  As it turns out, some people started with a single weird sentence and had no idea where the story was going.  Some wrote scenes in random order, fitting the best ones together like jigsaw puzzles at the end.  And others wrote by hand, with special ink, in journals they carried with them at all times.
Seeing all those people writing in such different ways really shook things up for me.  I realized that there were a thousand different ways to write good stories, and maybe I should try some of them.  And as such, I experimented wildly, trying all sorts of new workflows – and while I still can’t write by hand and I do need to write the tale from start to finish, it turns out that I work a lot better when I don’t plot everything out in advance.
And for novels, I’ve discovered that I need about three months of uninterrupted space to focus on nothing but the first draft.
Problem is, that’s impossible now.  I can’t focus on nothing but the first draft of Novel #2, because Angry Robot keeps coming back to me about Novel #1 to say, “Hey, could you fix these flaws?” Which means that I have to pull myself out of Entirely New Sequel Headspace to get back into Novel-Fixing Headspace, and as any programmer can tell you, it takes a while to transition between the two zones.
And I was getting very frustrated because I needed three months in isolation if I was going to make the deadline and get this second book in my next summer, but I also couldn’t blow off, you know, the fixable issues with my current manuscript.  So I was killing time between novels, writing stories I wasn’t that interested in to fill the gap – and let me tell you, “writing stories I’m not that interested in” is a sure way to produce writers’ block.
Thankfully, Seanan McGuire is a mensch.  I will give you her advice as she gave it to me:
“Your novel is a newborn baby.  And like any newborn’s parent, your life is never going to be the same again.  If everything goes right and your career takes off, you will never have three uninterrupted months to work on any project ever again.  So like a newborn’s parent, who must learn to nap whenever their child dozes off, you must learn to write whenever you are between projects.”
With that in mind, I said, “Fuck it, I’mma write as much of the sequel as I can before Amanda drops the deadline on my desk,” and so I got about 1,500 words into Flux before the edits arrived.
Which means tonight, I write another 500 or so words as I explore the sequel.  Which is also unsettlingly new territory.  Opening chapters are difficult enough for me, but the opening of a sequel has to be viewed through two lens:
1)  How’s this look to people who read the last book and want more?
2)  How’s this look to people who picked up this book by mistake, and this is their first introduction?
What I’m finding as I write Flux is that I’m trying very hard to hint at evolution.  This takes place about two years after Flex, and I want to provide the sense that the characters have evolved somewhat between books – so they’ve got new magical techniques you haven’t seen before, Aliyah the daughter has developed some new psychological issues that need to be fixed, and so forth.  They didn’t just step into a freeze locker when they were off-screen – they’re like my NPCs, where even if the player-characters don’t show up at the merchant’s shop for five sessions, the merchant still has their own agenda.  And that keeps things fresh for me.
Whoah.  That was all the answer to just one question, wasn’t it?  Sorry, John.
2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?
The one thing people seem to be focusing in on is the psychotic magical system – which is based on obsession.  If you’re enough of a crazy cat lady, you wear a hole in the laws of physics with your belief, and become a felimancer.  Problem is, you may then technically have world-bending power, but realistically you’re going to use this incredible magic to take care of your kitties.
And a lot of the early blurbs have referenced the “loopholes” in the magic that the characters keep finding.  So that kinda makes me proud, that people are reacting to the coherence of how magic works.
But to me, what’s really unusual about Flex is that it’s a completely inverted gender-novel.  The lead character, Paul, is a sensitive and physically unimposing guy (he is a scrawny amputee), given the maternal instincts of needing to protect his daughter after she gets wounded.  His magic, bureaucromancy, is a very potent magic – imagine anyone being able to rewrite legal contracts at will – but it won’t stop a bullet.
Whereas his partner Valentine is highly sexual creature, not big on self-introspection, and her videogame magic is tailor-made for massive violence.  So while I didn’t set out to do that, the male and female traditional roles are reversed in this, with the dude being the emotional caring one who functions as Valentine’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl and the chick being the protector with overt power and sexual agency.
3) Why do I write what I do?
The realistic answer is, “Because I don’t know how to stop.”
The slightly less-murky answer is, “Because I want to see the kind of stories that I wind up telling.”
4) How does my writing process work?
As mentioned before, I’ve made the switch from being a plotter to a pantser, writing on the fly with no set idea of where this is going.
The way Flex originated is that I was roleplaying in a small-scale Mage campaign, where our characters basically got drunk and got into bar-fights, and someone mentioned that we could make drugs to get some cash.  And I laughed that we were so incompetent we’d be the magical Breaking Bad, and I went, “…wait.”
Thing is, that’s a solid idea, but for me I had to think.  Because yeah, it sounds good to make magical drugs, but what are the limits?  I hate it when stories go, “Well, it’s magic, it can do anything” – because then you don’t know what challenges the character faces.  You have no good idea of what obstacles might stop them.  Sure, the fact that Green Lantern’s ring didn’t work on anything yellow was kinda dippy, but knowing that a) his ring might run out of juice and b) it can’t touch yellow set up endless permutations of suspense.
So I started thinking, “Okay, how would you make magic drugs?  As in, drugs that contained magic?”  And I started devising all sorts of restrictions on that – only hematite can properly hold the magic without it dissipating away, so of course that’s highly illegal now, and magic has a backlash that makes it so brewing it risks massive meth-fire-style explosions but worse, and, and, and….
…and by the time I got done, I did have a fairly comprehensive magical system in place.  I just kept asking question after question with the intent of understanding what magic could do, and what it couldn’t.  And the answer was kind of fascinating: there wasn’t much this magic couldn’t do, technically, but since only the craziest of people could get access to it, that meant its use was severely restricted in practice.
Then I needed to put characters in it.  But that’s a whole other essay.

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