Brandon Discovers Discovery Writing – Episode I

I decided that for the next little while, with the exception of upcoming anthologies I want to pitch to, my focus is going to be on novel writing. The problem is that I have a few potential novel projects to work on. A space opera that’s at draft 2 and needs work. A fantasy novel at draft 1 that needs considerable work (read: rewrite). And about a half-dozen other ideas for novels that are just notes in my Moleskines.

Deciding which one to work on was proving difficult. My main issue, I realized, is that the projects really speaking to me aren’t the ones in my trunk; I wanted to write something new, but that would mean most of August would be spent outlining, and I don’t want to lose the bulk of my break. Yes, I can see you rolling your eyes, non-teachers, but trust me – as much as the summer break is a gift (or a necessary siesta because of how gruelling the school year is, but that’s a separate topic) it can actually be stressful, as you look at everything you want to get done and you’re not sure if you have enough time to do it. So that was the quandary I found myself in.

The solution? I’m doffing my outliner hat, and trying out life as a pantser.

For any Muggles out there, “pantser” is the term for someone who discovery writes (or writes by the seat of their pants) instead of working from an outline. Every pantser is a little different, but the ones I’ve spoken to will have a few notes on character, setting and an overall plot, but not much beyond that, and certainly not a chapter-by-chapter breakdown. The idea is that you just start writing and see what happens, focusing on the skeleton of the narrative with the understanding that you’ll fill in the gaps and correct things as you complete later drafts. I’ve written short stories this way before, but never a novel, and so the prospect made me nervous; I’ve also heard it’s easy to hit roadblocks, write yourself into a corner, etc, because you haven’t planned. However, you could also spend months outlining a novel, start writing it, and realize two chapters in that the whole thing doesn’t work or you simply hate it (I’ve been there).

One thing that I had in my favor was I had an already-developed idea that would be perfect for discovery writing: a series of short stories and a subsequent novel that had been intended as a different project, but needed to be changed (sorry to be vague there, but there are reasons). With the bit of development I had already done for that, I decided to focus on a core idea structure taught to me by my colleague Anatoly Belilovsky. In order, I came up with the following:

  • Heart
  • Voice
  • Character
  • Setting
  • Plot

But the key is that my development was much more minimal than what I’ve done with previous novels. I have my two primary protagonists and my primary antagonist, but any other characters in my head I left as just one-line descriptions. I have the building blocks of my setting and the key rules of my world (it’s second-world fantasy), but the worldbuilding I left vague on purpose, to be built as I write. With an understanding of the key plot points I would need my characters to move toward, I started to write.

And damn if I’m not having a shitload of fun.

In all seriousness, discovery writing this novel has been liberating so far. My focus is on my characters and my dialogue, specifically on figuring out how they would respond to other characters’ lines or various external stimuli. This means that I’m really getting into their heads, and in some cases figuring out ways that I can screw with them. I’m also creating characters on the fly. I came to a scene where one of my protagonists is standing on the front stoop of a friend’s residence, barring the city guard from entering and demanding to see their commander (who replaced her when she retired). I had already spent a few paragraphs figuring her out, since up until starting that chapter she was only a one-line description in my notes, and then did the same with the first guard she speaks to, and then the commander. These people came alive as I was writing, in a way that never happens when I’m outlining. Part of this is because I started asking myself a crucial question: what’s the last kind of person you would expect to see right now? When I outline, since I’m trying to come up with a whole cast of characters without actually writing them, I find in my first draft that some of them are too generic or cliche. But with this method, I’m managing to avoid it.

The long and short of it, basically, is that I think discovery writing might be the way I should be writing my novels. I suppose I should be grateful I’m figuring it out now, at 27, as opposed to later in my career. I’m currently at the start of Chapter 8 (they’re short chapters right now, which may change in later drafts) and trying to manage 2000-3000 words per day at minimum, which so far has been do-able. The adventure now is to see if I can keep up this pace and maintain my excitement – there have always been moments before where I start hating a lengthy project and want to switch to something else – and I’ll be updating you as I go. The lesson here, folks: when in doubt, try something new.

Long Ma, Kumo and Alternative Storytelling Through Monsters

This weekend marked the true beginning of my summer, what with the end of summer school, which means spending considerably more time writing (more on that later) but also more time catching up on things and taking time to relax until the next school year. It’s a good thing, too, because I’d forgotten that Ottawa was about to be overrun by giant monsters duking it out across the downtown.

No, I’m not kidding. This weekend Ottawa hosted La Machine, a four-day mobile and evolving storytelling show involving two giant mechanical constructs each operated by a team of trained performers. One is Long Ma, the spirit of the Dragon-Horse, who is hunting the city for wings stolen by the nefarious giant spider Kumo. The story, which is described in full on the Ottawa 2017 website, is that Kumo snuck into Long Ma’s temple and robbed it before seeking refuge in Ottawa, the “mother-city of all spiders” (if I knew that, I might not have moved here). Having been awakened by the intense construction happening in Ottawa (nice tie-in there, by the way) Kumo spent the weekend fleeing and laying traps for Long Ma, until the two faced each other in an epic closing battle on Sunday night.

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t catch that ultimate finale, but I did wander into the Byward Market on Saturday to catch a glimpse of these two constructs, figuring I’d glimpse them from afar and continue with my day. But instead of being discouraged by the massive crowds in the market, I decided to make it a challenge and go monster hunting. Weaving between people and looking for shortcuts between or through buildings to avoid the main streets (which isn’t easy) while I listened for overheard comments of “I heard the spider is on Dalhousie” and “The dragon is going to turn down Sussex,” I got caught up in the energy of this event. The fun became imagining Long Ma and Kumo as actual creatures, as opposed to marionettes moving on wheels and operated by real people, and not just buying into the narrative, but imagining myself a part of it. Lo and behold, I glimpsed Kumo for a moment and gave chase (which should make certain friends of mine proud, since I’m actually terrified of spiders) only to find myself turning a corner and approaching Long Ma, with Kumo nowhere to be seen. As I moved to catch up to the Dragon-Horse (who moved surprisingly fast), myself and the crowd around me turned a corner and, sure enough, found the Giant Spider heading our way.

Which is how I found myself at ground zero of a fight between the two monsters.

In retrospect, it’s a testament to the creators of these constructs and their operators that it was so easily to lose myself in the story. I marvelled as Long Ma tried to stare down Kumo, only to flee from the spider because he wasn’t at full strength without his wings. Or at least that’s the narrative I imagined, as the constructs moved and music played in the background. That’s the special quality to this kind of storytelling: since the medium is entirely music and physical performance, you as the audience have to fill in the rest, leaving room for interpretation and imagination. When Kumo’s operators sprayed water at passersby from the spider’s spinnerets, I imagined webs being lain across the market, ensnaring hapless people until Long Ma arrived to free them. When Long Ma shot actual fire into the air (seriously, the fire was real) or emitted a roar from his loudspeakers, I felt for the grief and frustration of the mighty beast, wingless and homeless and alone in a strange city.

La Machine was storytelling at its finest, and serves as a reminder about how much fun can be had by being creative and thinking outside the box to deliver a narrative. For four days, our city was enraptured by the magic of Long Ma and Kumo, and for me at least, it’s a magic that will take a long time to fade.

The World is Obviously (Probably) Not Totally Fucked

Last week, I had the pleasure of reappearing on Literary Landscapes, a local radio show on 93.1 CKCU out of Carleton University, to chat with host Kate Hunt about my forthcoming publication in Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation. I’m an improviser at heart, so I went in with no specifics about what we might talk about, besides my story and the anthology and a couple other vague things. The result was that we dove very quickly into discussing exactly what “solarpunk” is, since it’s a relatively new genre that is just starting to get attention.

Solarpunk is a fascinating concept for me because it’s essentially optimistic, examining a world where technology or human activities don’t destroy everything, but often prove to be the solution to things. If you’ve ever read the anthology Hieroglyph that Kathryn Cramer and Ed Finn edited, the tone of solarpunk today is very much the same. But it’s not always optimistic; there’s a story in Sunvault where humanity has already ruined multiple Earths, and is moving to another one filled with the realization that we can’t botch it again because we’ll only get so many chances. Or sometimes solarpunk can be vague, like my story “Pop and the CFT,” which posits a carbon footprint tax that’s calculated on someone’s estate but never explains whether that system is actually doing any good with regard to how people treat the environment. So describing solarpunk as inherently optimistic is maybe a little inaccurate, since it’s difficult to write an interesting story where everything is sunshine and rainbows. Maybe it’s just a genre that opens up the possibility of things working out large-scale, presuming that

climate change or rampant economic disparity or North Korea or Cheeto Jesus or whatever the hell us doesn’t bring it all crashing down.

The thing I’ve always found so fascinating about science fiction and fantasy in general is that “what if” mentality that seems to pervade all of it. Lately that “what if” tends to focus on how things can go wrong; the question is about what particular thing will make the world worse, and how we’ll all deal with it. So I like the fact that subgenres like solarpunk are trying to take a slightly different tack. And that it’s new enough that nobody really understands what it is, and can have great conversations about it.

One of my favorite things to do is talk shop or society with other creative types, and I really enjoyed my conversation on Literary Landscapes. If you’d like to hear Kate and I discuss solarpunk and other things in more detail, you can follow the link above or via the CKCU website. And if solarpunk is something that interests you, there’s a Goodreads giveaway for Sunvault – but holy shit, it ends today! So go check it out right now!

Open Letter to the 2016/2017 School Year

The end of a school year always brings mixed emotions for me. It didn’t really dawn on me until recently that I’m no different than other people my age who are still stuck doing contract work and experiencing periodic uncertainty about their employment. I’m an LTO, and while I have enough experience (and possibly the reputation) that I consistently get teaching positions each year, I spend the summer not knowing where I’ll be in September. I’ve been exceptionally lucky in that I’ve almost never been without work, but five years feels like a long time of hopping from school to school, especially when I’m lucky enough to find myself at a school that I genuinely love working at.

“Bittersweet” is probably the best way to describe my feelings over the past couple of weeks. I tend not to talk about my teaching in too much detail here, but I’m going to break that unspoken rule, because my experience at Merivale High School this year was possibly the best of my entire career so far. I taught some truly exceptional students, and got to watch a bunch of them collect their diplomas, proud to have gotten a chance to work with them and (apparently) actually have an impact. I coached a team for the first time, and I kid you not that team won the friggin’ city championship for girls soccer (I played a very small part in that). I worked with some incredible admin and a department and staff that were amazingly supportive and encouraging, and endearingly dysfunctional. And at the end of the semester, the outpouring of goodwill from students and colleagues as I said my goodbyes made me, I’m not ashamed to say, a little emotional. (But no tears).

So I’ve said this to a bunch of people, but I want to repeat it here before I mentally transition fully into summer vacation: it was an absolute privilege teaching at Merivale this year. I’m taking memories (and some really heartwarming gifts) that I hope I’ll hold onto until I’m senile, and connections that hopefully will not fade with time. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that I have the opportunity to return there someday.

And to my students (who will always be my students, cuz that’s just the way I am) who apparently sometimes read this rambling blog, a wise man once said, “Everything ends, and it’s always sad. But everything begins again, too, and that’s always happy. Be happy. I’ll look after everything else.”

New Publication! “Water” on Grievous Angel

Sometime in the last year I had a bizarre and vivid dream. I was standing in a grove (or I was watching someone else standing in a grove) that looked like the Amazon rainforest if it was painted by Lewis Carroll or Dr. Seuss. There were other people around, and I knew that there was something dangerous nearby, but I never found out what it was. Right before the dream ended, I heard a voice say something like, “It’s a mad world when the water drinks you back.”

Now, having studied psychology I fully understand the basic concept of what a dream really is, but damn if I don’t have some vivid and occasionally screwed up dreams. I’m talking visions of other worlds, with faces that I don’t recognize – clearly my subconscious likes to work overtime while I’m trying to rest. These dreams sometimes mean I wake up feeling tired, but occasionally they can be useful since, you know, I’m a writer and all.

Today Grievous Angel published my flash story “Water,” which I concocted from the line above and the remnants of the dream that led me to it. My writing tends to be pretty straightforward, so “Water” is my first jump into the surreal (and if my friend Lana Kamarić has any say, not my last). It’s a weird story, and I’m glad it’s found a home. If you want a brief glimpse into the dark recesses of my brain, you can read it for free right here. And if you like it, please do spread it around on social media, and we’ll see what people think of me after…

Sunvault is available for preorder!

Okay, maybe I didn’t follow through on my commitment to get back to posting regularly. You know how it is. Final assignments need to get marked, jobs for September need to get applied to, conference preparations need to get done, end-of-year preparations need to be handled, poems need to be written in student yearbooks, and actual words need to get written somewhere in there, too …

Having said that, I’m going to totally cop out this week, too, since this post is solely to announce a forthcoming publication. Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation is coming soon from Upper Rubber Boot, and is now available for preorder! The anthology includes a ton of excellent authors, some of whom I’ve actually met and/or worked with before, along with my short story “Pop and the CFT,” where a retired rocker has to deal with the carbon footprint tax on his late father’s estate. You can check out the TOC and the phenomenal cover (seriously, it’s beautiful) on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

While we’re on the topic of self-promotion, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the review work I’m still doing for BlackGate.com. Since I have someone to report to there, I’m actually consistent with posting a biweekly review of something I’ve read, under the banner “In 500 Words or Less,” since there are too many long-winded reviews out there. I also post the occasional interview with a fellow author discussing their work, which so far has included Desirina Boskovich, Leah Bobet, Ryan McFadden and others. My latest review is Dogs of War by Jonathan Maberry, and you can go back through to see my thoughts on work by Mary Robinette Kowal, Joe Abercrombie, Desirina Boskovich and others. Over the summer I’ll be adding a page here cataloguing some of my Black Gate posts, but for now you can follow the link above to see what I’m up to.

More announcements coming soon, as well as regular posting of my madcap accounts of the writing life. Probably.

Mr. Crilly the Writer

There’s something very special about that first sip of tea in the morning, before you’re about to start writing.

Most people can relate to that, I think, especially coffee drinkers savoring that first cup on a morning when they don’t have to go to work. The only difference between me and them is that spending a Sunday morning writing is often as relaxing as sitting down with a good book or diving into something like Pillars of Eternity on my computer, with the added bonus of actually being productive. There’s an almost Zen-like quality to it, in the sense that if I don’t get to do my Sunday morning writing these days, it throws off my whole week.

This is one of many things I’ll be trying to explain to my Grade 10s tomorrow. A bunch of my History students have asked me to be a guest speaker in their Careers class, to discuss being a writer. I talk about writing on occasion in class, and some of my students were amazed or terrified at my ability to juggle four jobs at once, between teaching and writing. So not only do I have to decide what would be interesting or relevant to include in my presentation tomorrow, but I have to be careful not to repeat myself too much. Which would be a lot easier if I kept track of my tangents and mad ramblings on a day-to-day basis (note: start doing that).

Explaining writing to non-writers can be tough; we talk about it a lot in the community, and I’ve mentioned it here a few times. I even blogged about it last summer, discussing every little thing that I do in a week that’s part of being a writer (note: dredge up blog post for tomorrow). What I want to make sure to do is paint an accurate picture of what it means to be a writer, from the glossy amazingness to the mind-numbing slog and everything in between. Because until you’re actually pursuing some sort of creative career, it’s difficult to really conceptualize what that means. I’ve even spoken with visual artists or musicians that don’t really understand writing, and I’m sure there are things about both of those crafts that I don’t get.

What I might do is start by running through that list of everything a writer does in a week, and then distill writing down into some core concepts. But what would those be? There are the skills that have been hammered into their brains all semester, like time management. But I’d rather talk about the elements that are particular to being a successful writer. Energy is one, especially if you have a  day job. Monitoring health is close to that, given how sedentary writing is. Community, to avoid feeling isolated. Research. Trial and error. Getting over rejection. Writing what you know, and not being afraid if what you know is pretty dark. And maybe perspective. Whatever I discuss, I just hope my students enjoy it and maybe learn a little bit more about why their teacher is so weird (they always say “awesome,” but I know they mean weird). And if there’s time and they want me to, I might even read a little of what I write. I’m sure that’ll add to my cool factor.

Okay, I think that’ll do, until I get up there tomorrow and go off-the-cuff, as I sometimes do in the classroom. Thanks for helping me figure this out 🙂 Now it’s time for cup #2 from my pot of tea and some story editing…