Huh. Well, it’s been awhile. If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering what the hell happened to me. Stay awhile and listen. Hopefully over the course of reading this, you might learn some things out of my mistakes.
After completing Blood In The Machine, I took a break. This was one of the worst decisions I could have made. It went on longer and longer, each time telling myself I would return to work soon. Changes in my day job also impacted this, adding stress that held me back. At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
Soon came a year later, when I returned to work on Project: Embers. This was an effort that would ultimately be doomed, but it taught me a lot. For me to elaborate, I need to tell you how I worked on projects before and what I learned from Embers.
When I would first start thinking up projects to work on, I would take mental notes. I have a very good memory for things like this, so I had assumed it would be good enough to draw from. Then I would get to work and start writing down the rough scenes as they came to me. I would have an extremely rough idea of what scenes I would write and when, but I would also wing it the majority of times.
The ultimate result would be that I would have very little planned scenes outweighed by essentially freeform work. This worked for short stories, even Blood In The Machine, but when it came to a full-length novel…
Short summary? I did an insufficient amount of planning before a project and I took down little to no notes both before and during the writing process. It was quick, sloppy, and while it worked for short stories, it crumbled under the weight of a full-length novel.
Well, when I got back to editing the 1st draft of Embers, I saw all of those bad deeds come back to haunt me. Giant details were jumbled, timelines were jumbled, city names were mismatched, characters were left feeling incredibly uneven, etc. Nothing was right, everything demanding a full re-write.
Looking at the big picture, I saw only one real course of actions. I sat back, took time, and started taking notes. Not notes on a new project mind you, but notes on all of my failings with Embers. I mothballed the project and used it, instead, as a study piece for the hows and whys of failure. That version of Embers would never be something I could release, so at the very least, I could learn all I could from where it went wrong.
“The only mistake is not learning from failure.” I heard that quote a long time ago and it stuck with me. I thought it simply sounded poetic back then, but as I’ve mired myself in both my day job and in writing, it became less poetic and more sage advice.
To add to that, I wrote a couple short stories that gained no traction when I sent them out for submission, so that hurt the ego as well.
Now, I’ve started a new project from the ground up, Project: Echo. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because it belonged to an older project I mothballed as well. I’ll talk about the project later, because for right now, I want to talk about how I turned my failures from Embers into strengths for Echo. So, let’s break down my four main keynotes…
1: Plan your entire story.
Some writers are able to plot everything out in their heads and write from there. I used to think I was one of these types, able to draw everything I needed from memory and able to go back and pull details from previous text blocks when memory failed. Turns out I am not.
Looking back at Embers, the story shifted as I wrote the first draft. I had my original idea and slowly but surely deviated away from it until soon enough, it didn’t look anything like what I had started with. An idea here, a revelation there until eventually, it all adds up to a mess.
Going into Echo, I took the basic idea and took it to my timeline software (Aeon Timeline 2, a now completely invaluable piece of my toolbox) and started mapping it out from start to finish. This approach lets me see where pacing problems might arise, where new side-story arcs needed to be added, where new and important characters needed to be added, and get a feel for a proper ending.
This story is also taking place in my Scifi universe, Dark Stars, which I’ve been adding to the codex for a while now. When plotting this all out, would you like to know how much I added to the codex and timeline software for continuity?
Three new planets, one new station, one new named ship, fifteen new people, three new types of technology, and two new corporations. These are in addition to the fact that there are roughly thirty-nine primary scenes to the story. In the old method, none of this would really have been figured out before starting. Instead, it’s all concrete before the first word goes down.
So yeah, PLAN YOUR STORIES.
2: Take notes.
In Embers, when I had an idea or a character said a choice phrase? Yeah, I basically never took down notes. Want to know how it played out? I’d spend half my time trying to recall if a character ever addressed a topic, if a scene had happened on the page or just in my head, a wound was sustained, etc.
It. Was. A. Mess.
Instead, I’ve got a pile of notes already plugged into both Aeon Timeline and my mind-mapping software (XMind). Character involvement, ranks and positions, skills acquired, personalities and habits, etc. Both pieces of software will also be updated as the story goes on, making it so that one could simply pull up their file just to be refreshed on if something happened or when it occurred.
So yeah, +10 points for consistency.
3: Seriously, take your damn notes.
Mentioning a city or planet? Note it. The character picks up a new habit or trait? Note it. The antagonist takes a non-lethal wound to the shoulder that might mess with his range of motion? Note it! The time you take to make notes in your story as you write pales in comparison to the time you’ll spend going back to fix it because you messed up and had no notes to save you.
4: Take the time to explore your tools and get to know their features.
Seriously, if you’re going to dedicate yourself to the tools you have, at least know what they can do besides the obvious surface features. I use three particular tools: Scrivener for writing, Aeon Timeline 2 for timelines (character interactions, births, deaths, story-arc tracking, etc), and XMind for a codex (notes on characters, tech, places, etc).
I’ve been using Scrivener for years but I only recently learned it even had a name generator in it. I struggle with names, always have, so I was rather ashamed I didn’t ever take the time to learn that I already had the tool to help me.
Don’t hesitate to adapt your tools beyond the intended function either. For XMind, a piece of mind-mapping software, I use a second map to act as a makeshift star-map to show what systems are where and connected to which neighboring systems. It wasn’t intended to be used like that at all, but it suffices.
So yes, there were most definitely some common sense and easily avoidable problems I could have skipped if my head wasn’t wedged up my own backside. They were obvious in hindsight, but up until that point, my old methods had worked well enough for me. It wasn’t until Embers that I really saw how they were messing me up.
I suppose scale can help reveal some of the smallest mistakes.
The biggest mistake I made out of the entire ordeal? Complacency. Instead of continuing to trudge on and work more, I sat back and told myself “Any day now.” Procrastination, kids, it’ll kill you. It nearly did me.
With those lessons taken to heart, Project: Echo is now starting to be written. Every scene has been mapped, every character has been created and taken into account, the whole thing has been nailed down like a blueprint. It’s simply a matter of building it according to plan.
It took me a long while to come back from the “studying break”, due in part to questions over if I had any right to get back into the field. Regardless, the urge to write has muted my doubt.
So yes, I’ll add some details to what Project: Echo is in the days ahead. Until then, the show must go on.