My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.
First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.
Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.
As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.
Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.
As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.
In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.
I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.
Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.
The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?
To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.
All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.
But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possiblity.
The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.
Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.
I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.
Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.