Writing Is Like Remote Alien-guided Farming
This post is my contribution to the “My Writing Process Blog Tour,” a Q&A that prompts writers to discuss their work and craft. I’d like to thank Kristen Falso-Capaldi for not only tagging me (and thereby making me aware of this blog tour) but also for hosting my answers on her blog.
I don’t yet have a blog of my own, but you can learn more about me and my work at www.zeroechoshadowprime.com
What am I working on?
Right now, I’m working on rebalancing my life. Yeah, I know, that’s not a writing project, but that’s the problem: for the past 6 months, I’ve had no time to write.
This utter lack of free time is a relatively new development for me. Throughout my 20s, I had gobs of it. Same as now, I was a freelance film editor with a pretty good day rate, so like a camel, I was able to horde enough of a cash reserve to go on living for weeks at a time without paid work. I would fill this time with all sorts of passion projects, the latest and greatest of which was ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME, my first novel.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was writing ZESP, my life was nearing the end of its extended adolescence. Almost immediately after publication, I got engaged, bought a house, and my day-job kicked into high gear. Suddenly, all the free time I used to spend on passion projects was gobbled up by mundane tasks and worries. I had finally become something I’d never thought I’d become: an actual adult.
This dilemma isn’t intractable, of course. On Twitter, I’ve met a bunch of inspiring people—young parents and high-powered professionals with far more responsibilities than I—who still manage to find time to write. So I know it can be done. I just have to figure out a system that works for me. Because after 10 years of taking my free time for granted, my time-management skills suck.
Although I haven’t been writing in earnest, I have been planning my next move. I have three projects lined up. The first is a short story titled, “I Never Asked for a Robot Army.” I’ll let you guess what it’s about. The second is a sequel to ZESP. The third is a top-secret science fiction novel that may mark a new direction for my writing career.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Whenever I embark on a novel (or any long project), I like to write down my goals. How will this novel standout from the crowd? What kind of thoughts will it inspire in people? How will it engage their emotions?
The purpose of this exercise is two-fold. First, it helps me hone my intentions early on. Second, it provides a compass I can reference from time to time to make sure I don’t stray from my initial artistic vision. Novels, as I’m sure you know, take months (or in my case, years) to write, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s important.
Here, I am listing the goals I had written for ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME because I think they can be applied to my body of work as a whole.
Goal #1: To blur the lines between prose and screenwriting. Dialogue should drive almost every scene. If I cannot imagine my words being dramatized visually, as if on a movie screen, I should rewrite them.
Goal #2: To blur the lines between sci-fi and fantasy. Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and that’s how I want to convey it. With technology you can fly, turn invisible, slow time, invade people’s minds, share bodies, etc, almost like magic.
Goal #3: To explore the mysteries of consciousness and mortality without dropping a thriller’s pace.
Why do I write what I write?
That’s a very good question, because I could spend my time in plenty of other ways (and often do). Writing is not the most immediately enjoyable activity. Yes, it can be tremendously satisfying when you patch a troublesome plot hole, or when you get two subplots to click with one another, or when you finally publish the damn thing. But most of the time, writing is a slog. It’s also not a very lucrative activity, nor is it easy. In fact, finishing ZESP was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my whole life.
But that’s probably why I love to write so much.
Here’s another famous quote, this time by John F. Kennedy: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
Ok, so maybe writing a novel isn’t as hard as putting a human being on the moon, but it’s frickin’ hard. Writing is a challenge, and challenges are fun. So that’s why I do it.
How does my writing process work?
I like to use a farming metaphor to describe my process. Before farmers can harvest their crops, they must do a lot of prep work—plow, plant, water, etc.
The same is true for writers, though the fields they toil are the amorphous (and temperamental) fields of their own minds. The seeds they plant are ideas, gathered either from preexisting media sources or from the world directly. Because I’m a science fiction writer, I like to stay current with the latest scientific discoveries, and so I read a lot of science news and books.
After I’ve gathered enough sciency ideas, the next step is to grow them, and for that, I have a silent partner who does most of the work: Retep Temas.
How can I describe Retep Temas? He’s a bit mysterious. Often elusive. Retep tends to disappear whenever I need him the most, and he’s never around when I’m sitting at my computer. He’s also incapable of language in the conventional sense. He feeds me plot ideas and snippets of prose by way of epiphany. This has led me to wonder if he lives inside my head, but I cannot be sure. He could be an extra-dimensional being for all I know. Or an angel. Or an alien that has taken residence on the dark side of the moon, flinging thought bombs my way via satellite relay.
Whichever the case, Retep is the real genius of our little partnership. I take all the credit, of course, but Retep is the one who brings the goods. I simply write them down. Though, like I said, Retep is elusive. Whenever I lay my fingers on the keyboard, Retep automatically goes bye-bye. It’s almost like he’s allergic to computers. So if we haven’t prepared any material in advance, then no writing gets done. Except maybe on Twitter.
My most important job as a writer is to figure out ways to coax Retep out of his hiding hole. To that end, I’ve stumbled upon two semi-reliable tactics. First, I pose story questions to him. At any given moment, my WIP will invariably have problems that need to be addressed. I suss out the most crucial ones and reformulate them as questions.
What does the protagonist want? How can I prevent her from getting what she wants? What kind of antagonist would provide the most drama to the story? How does the world’s advanced technology work, and how does it contribute to the story? How can I patch this particular plot hole? Etc.
Then, I simply wait until Retep answers the questions. It does me no good to write during this time. In fact, Retep is much more likely to respond if I’m doing something completely mindless, like driving to work, walking in the park, taking a nap, or taking a shower. Retep sends me more ideas in the shower than anywhere else, which is kinda funny, because he’s almost literally watering my head the way a farmer waters crops.
Ah yes, I nearly forgot my initial metaphor: writing is like farming. Remote alien-guided farming. Once Retep waters the seeds, I can finally harvest the crops (i.e. write words onto the page). Editing follows much the same way as writing does, with me posing questions and Retep answering them. Eventually, I run out of questions to ask, and that’s when I publish.
Tag, You’re It!
Now I must tag other writers to answer these questions. This has been a difficult decision for me, since I know so many talented writers, but I’m pretty sure I have to narrow my selection to three. I’ve chosen an old Twitter friend, a new Twitter friend, and an IRL friend.
Sofie Bird is one of my oldest and dearest friends on Twitter. Conversations with her are little like sliding down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland. She will spin your thoughts back at you, infusing them with colorful imagination, and before you know it, you’ve entered this very strange world in which Sofie reigns supreme. So often when I talk to her, I want to ask, “Are you for real?” but I also don’t want to break the intoxicating spell she’s created. It’s like a super-fun drug trip, but without the side effects.
In the limited time I’ve known M.J. Kelley, he has impressed me with his incisive understanding of both the craft and marketing of indie writing. I’m pretty certain that his response to this blog tour would be well thought out and highly educational. And at any rate, I’d like to know the guy a little better.
Mark Landry attended USC Film School with me over 10 years ago, and we’ve been good friends ever since. More than anyone I know, Mark knows how to tell a tight, compelling story, and as co-editor for ZERO ECHO SHADOW PRIME, he has been an invaluable source of ideas, story fixes, and inspiration. He’s a screenwriter by trade, but he recently penned a graphic novel that is out-of-this-world amazing. The project is a bit hush-hush, so I’ll let him talk about it in more detail.