Words With Friends

2009Yesterday I reported completion of my latest novel, a project I’ve been working on for a few years now and one of the more ambitious stories I’ve ever attempted.

With four main characters, a strong secondary cast and several universes’ worth of adventure, it’s something I’m very glad to see the end of, and I really can’t wait to start working on it again.

In a month. Or two. Or when an editor gets back to me with comments and a big fat check. It’s time to set aside the crew of the Space Force Protectorate Vessel Hephaestus for a while, and there’s more than enough material in my brown notebook to keep me occupied until then.

Seven months ago, I talked about this book here, and predicted I was about two weeks away from finishing. I was right, just like last month when I told an editor I was a couple weeks from finishing. And given that I took a couple relative weeks off during that month, I’m feeling pretty good about my ability to estimate writing time.

What can’t really be estimated, or even quantified, is my desire to write. Technically, I’m always creating something, tumbling plots in my head, exploring character motivations, pushing my broken brain to make connections that appear easily for other people. Perhaps I’m outlining, shuffling ideas around to get the best back for your buck. Perhaps I’m people watching, looking for a face that belongs to one of my characters, so that I can better understand what they’re telling me.

In the first part of 2009, I forged the first link in a chain that led to the completion of this particular book. L and I had just moved into a new house in Shoreline, and for the first time in many years, I was no longer sharing a wall with someone else. I could play my movies as loud as I wanted, write without interruptions, and host gatherings out in my back yard. It was a large one, just over 1/6 of an acre, and since I wasn’t working at the time my allergies and I had a lot of time to ponder how meaningless it was to keep cutting it back, when it was just going to keep on growing. Almost as if the grass was fighting back, and for some reason I started thinking about how ants view the lawnmower.

So you know, this is how writers get ideas. Saying “What if…” in a group of writers is the literary equivalent of tossing a loaded grenade into a room. After the dust cleared, I had an idea. I had a story to tell, and I knew exactly how to do it.

Just not, “right now.”

That summer I put what I thought were the finishing touches on another book, but this science fiction project just wouldn’t leave me alone. I kept telling myself all that spring that I didn’t have time to write another novel, when I had a three book series without a home. That my vision of the future was less important than retelling the past.

But every time I mowed the lawn, I couldn’t think about anything else.

It started with two short pieces that weren’t quite right in my head. Each was missing something, and while I started developing the latter I realized I was telling the end of a story, not the beginning. A mostly grenade-free conversation over drinks with friends and editors Marti McKenna, Bridget McKenna, and David Noonan, cemented in my brain that the idea could at least work as a story (it did get me another drink), and was worth pursuing. But to write that story, I needed to know what had gone before, so yet another tale was born.

The next time I mowed the lawn, I plotted out a far-future political thriller, where the human race and its alien allies argued their right to exist to a suspicious galactic confederation.

If that doesn’t sound like a short story to you, you’re exactly right. It was yet another novel starter crowding for space with so many others, and tripping over the roadblocks I was setting up for my own success. Despite my desire to write Big Things, science fiction kept pushing its way to the top, and eventually the short stories, the not-a-novel, and the original concept came together in one glorious rush of creative energy. As I surrendered to this clear inevitability and prepared to write it, I got another interesting bit of news.

None of us had jobs anymore. It’s a reality in both publishing and game design that you hire on for a project, and then re-organize after release. But up until the day of launch, there was a very real plan for continued employment, and the lack thereof after launch freed up a whole bunch of my time.

So I mowed the lawn, had drinks with friends, and thought about the future.

Two months later, I started to write. A lot. 45 thousand words of space-shippy goodness hit the page, along with significant starts of two other books, and a not-so-short story that became my first non-novel submission in a good number of years.

A year later. Because soon after my month of fantastic productivity, I had another job. With Marti, Dave, Bridget, and a few other people I’d worked with during the summer. And the book with which I was so happy, that had consumed my brain for the better part of a year, went back into the box.

Oddly enough, last summer we got the news that we didn’t have jobs anymore, and here I was with plenty of time to think about the future. Mine, of course, but also that of those poor crewmen of the Hephaestus, abandoned in space for three long years. I’d opened the box once or twice a year to check on them, thinking about what would happen next on their mission, pushing concepts around in my head, and remembering how strongly their story grabbed me once upon a time.

Bringing them to life has been a long process, punctuated over and over with jobs, friends, and other projects. The 11 chapters that compromised the first two acts were essentially unchanged for three years. I sent them out for review a few times, got some comments, a few job offers, but in the box they stayed until last fall.

Winter added 17 chapters and plans for a dozen more to the manuscript. In January I wrote another book, got another job, and somehow another few months went by with no progress.

The first of June found me at home with no job and all my excuses intact. I’ve spent the last month killing them with fire, and working on my lawn.

Going by the calendar, it took four years to finish this book. But looking at the time I actually spent writing, it really took five months, four jobs, two houses, and one never ending battle between the human race and the kingdom of the plants.

Why did I write this post today? I’ll tell you. If you want to know why writers write, and why most of us worry about money, you need know nothing more than this:

On any given day, we’d rather be having drinks with friends than mowing the lawn.

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