The Benefits of a Step Back

Novel Fuel
Authorial Essentials

As regular readers know, I’ve been working on a new Cobalt City novel for over a year now. As is typical for me, progress is not always smooth and constant. I had a big block from some time in October until just a week ago where I’m pretty sure I didn’t finish a single chapter.

Considering I had ten of thirty-four chapters to go until this draft was done, that was frustrating as hell. Pleased to only have eight chapters to go at this point thanks to a reasonably productive week despite day jobbery and a sick domestic cohort.

But as frustrating as the stall in writing progress was, there are advantages to stepping away from a work in progress now and then. Finishing a book in one big rush feels great. Dumping it all out in one huge period of creativity can turn in a really solid first draft, and that’s a good space to start from. But too often, the temptation to get back in there and make edits and declare it done before the glow fades is not a helpful instinct. Youthful (or in my case middle-aged) enthusiasm gets shit done. And while perfect is the enemy of done, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be critical of your own work.

Finding that balance is a motherfucker. I’m still not perfect at finding it, but I like to think I’m getting better. That magical and ephemeral space between “I shit gold” and “everything I create is shit,” that tightrope between pure ego and pure despair, it makes us better as creators. It keeps us from sending our babies out into the world before they’re ready, but also keeps us from sheltering them for so long they never see the light of day. Most of us naturally fall on one side of that divide or the other, and in my experience most of us making a go of it as writers or artists tend to land on the former side. What we create is either rejected or finds the level of reception it may be due (although self-publishing has skewed this somewhat, because success as a self-publisher is so interlinked with success as a marketer success or failure is not always indicative of quality).

I tend to hold onto an idea of how good I want my finished product to be. And how close I get to that is largely a matter of perspective and time.

Perfect is an illusion–creative Shangri-la. But better is attainable. Always.

Which brings me back to Cobalt City: RESISTANCE.

The  perspective gained by not being in the weeds of a WIP has never failed in making the finished product better for me. This novel has proven to be no exception. A few months away not obsessing about the novel (like, not even thinking about it for whole weeks at a time), lets new ideas take root. It lets seeds that snuck into the cracks take flower.

By way of illustration, three ways this book surprised me in the last week:

  1. I’d created a government agency tasked with identifying and rounding up Muslims living in the U.S., because liberating a detention center is a big element of the novel. A little time away (and insight from recent news stories) helped me realize there was no need to create an agency when an existing one could be militarized and tasked with the job. So I’m going to have to reverse engineer that in a later draft, and finish up this first draft incorporating that change.
  2. On the topic of liberating detention centers, I found myself confounded by the logistics of it. Not how to break out tens of thousands of people from remote detention centers. Superpowers make some things a lot easier, story-wise. But once they’re free, what then? What do you do with a sudden population of political refugees with a tyrannical government who considers them criminals? That puzzle found a solution in an unexpected quarter, and I’m working on seeding that back into the earlier chapters this weekend.
  3. Finally, I have one of my longest-established characters, and one who I genuinely love writing, who has never really defined certain character elements. Like, I struggle to think of how they’re dressed, which is usually a prominent character queue for me. But most of my time with them has been in-costume, or dealing with matters relating to their costumed identity. Fortunately the break I took in the novel was right around a chapter dealing prominently with that character who was having to take a hard look at themselves, who they were, and what they stood for outside of the costume. In poking at the matter in some depth, I realized things about that character that I’d never considered before–things that would have never occurred to me when I first wrote them over a dozen years ago.

So, work on Cobalt City: RESISTANCE continues. I have eight chapters to go. Ideally, I will only have seven left by the end of this weekend, with writing groups scheduled after work on both Tuesday and Thursday, as well as next Saturday. I’m nearing the terminal velocity portion of the novel. The final chapter is all wrap-up, and the five that come before it are, as my cohort is fond of saying, banana pants.

Then I’m going to let it sit once the first draft is done, get it out to a few readers to whack it with sticks, hard second draft, get it to an editor to do a tight pass, then another edit. If all goes well, I’ll have enough time, perspective, and other people’s input to make it the novel I know it can be in time for the 2018 elections. Maybe a month before the election, if all goes well.

The important thing is that I do the work, knuckle down (without wearing myself out), and try to stay on the tightrope. Which, weirdly enough reminds me of one of my favorite lyrics of all time, from “Goodnight Elizabeth” by the Counting Crows:

We couldn’t all be cowboys
So some of us are clowns
And some of us are dancers on the midway
We roam from town to town
I hope that everybody can find a little flame
Me, I say my prayers,
Then I just light myself on fire
And I walk out on the wire once again

Between then and now, I will also be looking to commission some art for promo and a nice, slick cover. Maybe something cinematic with Felix Joseph, Gato Loco, and Snowflake squaring off against a Nazi bike gang on a desert highway. We’ll see.

In the meantime, I have some writing to do.

(Btw, above lyrics are copyright: Adam Fredric Duritz / Ben G Mize / Charles Thomas Gillingham / Daniel John Vickrey / David Lynn Bryson / Matthew Mark Malley. Buy their music. The album Recovering the Satellites is an overlooked gem.)


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