writing while abroad

Today is my first full day of Staging in San Francisco. Hopefully I’ll have time to sketch out a post about it before we fly out Friday morning. In the meantime, let’s talk writing!

In October 2014, I attended the Viable Paradise writing workshop, where I learned about story structure and long-term career strategies. Since then, I’ve mostly worked on short stories. Short stories are self-contained, relatively quick to write, and easy to submit to online markets. They’re a good tool for learning the fundamentals of my craft[1] — basic story structure, compelling characterization, clean prose, a drafting/revision process, etc.

For the next few years, I’m returning to long-term projects. This is partly because I won’t submit to paying markets while overseas; I can’t guarantee access to the internet or a printer/scanner, physical mail will take weeks or months to reach its destination, and (most relevant) the Peace Corps does not permit volunteers to work for alternative pay sources during service. I don’t want to write stories only to have them sit on my hard drive for two years — especially since I’ll want to re-revise them after that long in the trunk.

But it’s also a stability thing. On average, I draft about 5k a week — a full (and fairly lengthy) short story. I’m juggling three or four projects at any given time: drafting, researching, aging it in a drawer, trading critiques, revising, line-editing — bouncing between different-stage stories to keep my eyes fresh. The reason I learn so quickly is that I have to reassess my progress every week in order to decide which project is the best use of my time.

This was manageable when I was working a job that didn’t require a ton of creative energy or critical self-assessment, but in Mongolia the majority of my attention is going to be taken up navigating a foreign culture and new responsibilities. I need something I can plug away at for weeks or months at a time. So: the novel.

I have two projects to work on over the next year or two. The major one rehashes a very bad year-old outline. In its world, people protect themselves from an invisible plague called malice by installing ward-sigils on their houses, roads, and vehicles. It features a vaguely scary as-yet-underdeveloped governmental authority, dinosaurs, zombies, and badass freelance ward-artists. I’m spending a lot of time picking my brain about class systems, the existence of institutional “non-persons”, and the power of fear and people’s unthinking instinct to conform to the perceived reality their society projects.

I’ve also got a weird little thought experiment about sentient houses who protect people from their worst selves. It’s a little bit moralistic and it’s shaped like a folk tale — I’m not sure which of those two caused the other. It looks like it’ll be around 20k when it’s finished (which, for the non-writers in the room, is rather a difficult length to sell), but it’s unusual enough and coherent enough for me to keep puttering with. I don’t like it, yet, but it intrigues me.

[1] (Granted, a lot of these fundamentals function very differently in a long work vs. a short one. The structure of a novel is obviously a lot more complex than that of a short story, and my process of building it changes as a result. But every story needs a beginning that introduces just enough information, a middle that develops in a deliberate way, and an ending that feels conclusive; and ‘framing’ a story — excluding ideas and characters that fall too far from the key developments of the novel in order to make the story feel cohesive — is a universal necessity.)