Writing Breakthroughs, or, OMFG

31 Dec

Sometimes, it’s like that.

If I were in an e-mail right now, someone would find themselves getting a hyperactive burbling e-mail shot at them. But  I didn’t do my pages today, am out of e-mail, shouldn’t even be on this blog…but I just had a major breakthrough, and I need to burble it for a moment. It helps clarify these things.

I’ve wondered for a long, LONG time now what the hell the difference was between a serial and a novel inside of my head. It really frustrated me, because for years and years and years now, I can practically generate a serial on the spot and begin writing it. And when I write a serial, I can sail through tens of thousands of words more or less effortlessly.

God in the Machine, for example. I wrote the first four or five episodes very quickly, because they were needed, and then continued to write the next few pretty quick. And at any point, I could come back and sit down and turn out more episodes. I’ve got the whole thing in my head, waiting for me to do it.

Most of my serials are like that. Rocket Johnny, I’ve got it waiting in my head until I want it. I’ve got a half-dozen serials floating around my brain right at this moment. And if someone, tomorrow, came to me and wanted a serial and had a few ideas of what they wanted, I could generate it before the day was out. And work on it. And produce a huge amount of work, with total confidence.

A novel…I start ’em and don’t finish them, I have a tenuous connection to them. I feel, as Neil Gaiman said, “like Wil E. Coyote, running off the cliff and continuing to run, until you look down and then you plummet.” That’s definitely how novel-writing is for me.

Even Save Us, which is going almost suspiciously well, is exhaustive clockwork. I’m writing it fast, thanks to the new muscles I’ve discovered by handwriting purely. But it’s painful, careful crafting. The clockwork metaphor is apt: it’s placing quite a lot of gears in a very specific order, to produce the desired effect.

Why is the one so strong and easy, and the other so difficult? I’ve always wondered.

I’ve tried to trick myself by saying “this is a serial!” but because I know in the back of my head that it’s a novel-idea, it doesn’t work. And I’ve wondered about that too. What’s the difference? The fundamental thing which separates serials from novels?

I figured it out tonight, while reading a comic and contemplating Rocket Johnny (because the comic I was reading had just done a bunch of my ideas…and done them extremely well).

And I was thinking about Rocket Johnny and thinking about the NovelNotebookProject (or whatever we’re calling it) that Kristine and I are beginning tomorrow. And I thought “I shoudl do a Rocket Johnny novel. That’d be fun. That’d be a great adventure story too, wouldn’t it? So that would fit in…”

(and I think I might, because I seriously dig the idea)

So. This is the difference. The breakthrough:

When I think up a serial, the characters tend to turn up first and, a nano-second later, their stories, which all inter-weave and create the story of the serial. With God in the Machine, Loeb and Max turned up as conscious robots in a world full of normal, clockwork robots. Split-second later, the Captain, Master System, etc. turned up. The plot turned up a moment later. All of this is so very, very close together that when one thing turns up, or another thing, is almost impossible to discern. but I can discern it. Characters-then-plot.

With a novel, I tend to have the plot turn up first. The premise, at least. And then some interesting characters. And then a plot, woven out of premise-and-characters.

Maybe you don’t see the difference, but it’s okay. This is just for me, I’m afraid. If one is thinking about this from within the space between my ears, it all makes sense and is a hyperactive, mind-boggling revelation that might really, really help the struggling nature of my novels.

(Which would make me so, so happy)

Serials have to turn up with characters first. Starting premise, maybe, a pilot episode-plot, or a first-season arc…but I need the cast of characters. Because unlike a novel, which might have a unified plot…with a serial, I KNOW I’m going to go a lot of different plot directions. With my Enforcer serial, the first season was  the Earth-Kryssk War (and stopping of same). Second season was a post-war season, and an undercover plot season. Third season would have been the arrival of the Gorgons, and what they were going to do, if I had gotten around to writing it. Do you see what I mean? Same characters, evolving and growing, but lots of stories, lots of one-off stories, lots of fun-for-the-hell-of-it scenes between characters.

I would say “it’s the difference between a TV series and a stand-alone movie” but I’m not quite comfortable with that metaphor, it’s not quite apt, for reasons I can’t necessarily explain.

But anyway, that above is the fundamental block of a serial. A novel is something different. At least for me. I’m well aware that I’m not a natural novel writer. My muscles lie in other parts of the field. But I LIKE novels. And I have ideas that NEED to be novels, because they aren’t serial ideas (and I can’t trick them into being it, as you can perhaps see now).

All of this is very interesting and heartening, and I think I actually figured it out almost a week ago, and just now became conscious of it.

About a week ago, I had a novel turn up in a flash of ideas. I’ve never had a novel turn up quite the way this one did. Normally, serials turn up this way. The novel is tentatively called “Black Sails,” until I’ve done my research and another name presents itself.

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written, anything anyone would imagine I’d write, if they could be so bothered. It’s not bragging, I hope, to say that if I took my name off it, no one would notice it’s me. (If you see what I mean. Just that it’s pretty far off my beaten path.)

It’s going to be a long, long novel, a sprawling epic set in the 1800s.

And…characters turned up first, along with the initial premise, and then they caused a plot. You see? It’s a NOVEL, that turned up using the SERIAL engines. But it’s not a serial.

I’m really excited about it.

But I need to finish Save Us first.

And I have some short stories. And I’m still not particularly writing those. I’m reading a bunch of short stories, and I’m pondering short stories and considering my own short story muscles.

I think I let a lot of muscles go lax the past three or four years, and now I’m having to remember how to flex them…and then to flex them in repeated fashion, until I’ve built them into more solid, load-bearing muscles. And then there are things like Novel Muscles, which I’ve never previously built before, but which are gaining heft.

This is quite a long post. And probably boring, outside of my head. I’ll try to be more interesting next time I post. Which will, presumably, be from 2010.

Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, unless you’ve already had it. And quite a nice new year, and I hope your 2009 wasn’t so shabby.

Time for tea, and writing.

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Posted by on December 31, 2009 in Uncategorized


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