R.J. Theodore: Five Things I Learned Writing Flotsam
Captain Talis just wants to keep her airship crew from starving, and maybe scrape up enough cash for some badly needed repairs. When an anonymous client offers a small fortune to root through a pile of atmospheric wreckage, it seems like an easy payday. The job yields an ancient ring, a forbidden secret, and a host of deadly enemies.
Now on the run from cultists with powerful allies, Talis needs to unload the ring as quickly as possible. Her desperate search for a buyer and the fallout from her discovery leads to a planetary battle between a secret society, alien forces, and even the gods themselves.
The Book Won’t Happen Without You
I spent years waiting for a toga-draped muse and Time incarnate to come together in a Wonder Twin powers, Activate! moment. Waited for the clouds to part and light to shine upon my keyboard like it did for King Arthur’s sword. Oddly enough, this never happened.
I waited for vacations and wrote only when I had three or more hours to rub together. I picked and pecked, lost my grip on the plot, and started over multiple times, re-writing new threads of ideas when I began to doubt in what I’d written.
When I engaged a developmental editor and we agreed my malignant tumor of words needed to be put aside to write a new, clean draft, I braced myself for another twelve years of putting this story together. I begged life for more long stretches of Saturday afternoons when I could write and still no such time materialized.
Then I had an odd thought: What if I write every day? What if I get up a bit earlier in the morning, write for an hour before work, and see what happens?
A month later I had a new draft. Four months later I had a revised draft.
I wasn’t writing faster. I was writing consistently for the first time. 1,500- and 2,000-word sessions added up fast. I recorded my writing practice in a YouTube series I call Asimov Hour, which stands as proof that not only was I able to scrape up an hour to write, I also scraped enough minutes together to edit a new video series.
The time didn’t appear to me. I seized it, wrestled it, and pinioned its limbs. I set my alarm earlier, put my ass in the chair, and made lots of tappity on the keyboard.
I’m not saying that everyone needs to write Every. Damned. Day. But for me, consistent effort kept my plot lines moving on a single plane. Claiming time and space to do the work built a habit that became my new normal (two years later, I still put my ass in the chair every morning). Through daily practice, I found that, for me, writer’s block was temporary and writing is less a cosmic orgasm of creative inspiration and more a matter of showing up and doing the work.
Please Stop Revising (Never!)
During those years of inconsistent effort, I believed there was no point engaging the services of a professional editor until I had a mostly perfect, final draft. I wrote and re-wrote, tacking on new ideas, putting friends through the misery of reading multiple versions of the same shipwreck of a story. New threads and new twists would fix existing problems, and I could patch any hole with more plot and more exposition. And I always kept my mind open to changing a major detail, even if it led to me writing everything over. And over. And over.
You might expect that I was heartbroken when the editor I finally hired told me it was time to strip out all that stuff (pretty sure he used a stronger word) and write a clean draft. Twelve years, wasted! I might have moaned, back of hand to my forehead, draped across a settee of emotion.
But instead I felt freed, untethered, given a new chance. It was like a hot shower at the end of a long day of yard work. I could be proud of what I did, only clean and not stinky.
Suddenly I had energy for the novel again. I had guidance, a path laid out for me, an outline free of plot holes, and new purpose.
I don’t think, given a hypothetical time machine, I’d go back and stop myself from writing and re-writing all those drafts. Those were words I had to invest into my craft in order to get better and mistakes I had to make to know what better felt like. But I will say, with one-hundred percent certainty, that getting serious, putting aside my fear, and reaching out for help propelled both my novel and me ahead at full speed.
Still, You Can Revise It If You Need To
While over-revising was definitely my favorite crutch, it also gave me a sense of freedom to write the story without fear of it being too strange or too out-there. My setting is strange. My combination of story elements is improbable. As my publisher has said, publicly, “Nothing in this book should work…” It wasn’t written to market. It wasn’t written to trends. It cracks a whip over the reader’s head right off the start, shattering preconceived expectations, and it never apologizes.
And the only way I could write such a story – to have the grit coarse enough to put this book out there – was to promise myself I could always change it later if I needed to. Could always rein it in if it got too strange. Luckily, the resulting strangeness is the very thing that draws readers to the story.
Lots of details did change. Some elements were revised when they needed to be, pumped up or deflated to better fulfill a few bonus genre expectations. Other things were revised to increase tension or improve world-building. More subtle but no less important changes were made, as well, no matter at what stage in the production we were (and I cannot thank Parvus Press enough for being willing to do right by the story even when it would have been way more convenient to let certain things go). Every change made the story better.
That’s all awesome. All good reasons to revise. Way better than combing back over it one more time just so I didn’t have to do something scary like actually publish the thing. Revisions aren’t a thing I fear. Revisions, admittedly, are a shield I use to defend myself against the things I fear. They’re also the safety harness that made me brave enough to let loose and write an impossible, improbable story, wild, free, and head-strong. And why the entire quote from my publisher is, “Nothing in this book should work and it does and it’s amazing and I love it.”
Characters are People First
One of things I knew, in an unexpressed and intangible way, was that I loved well-rounded characters. I enjoyed villains who thought they were the only one doing the right thing. I loved that their goals were often the same goals the “good guys” had, but that they were willing to do drastically different things to get there. I loved that they needed the exact same building blocks of character that my protag needed.
I love characters that might be real people. Sure, I love a good Skyscraper Action Movie with memorable one-liners, but I love getting to sympathize with their broken marriage and not just the broken glass in their bare feet. Their skill set helps them defeat the antagonist, yes, but their motivations and emotions connect me to their story and make me care whether they win or die trying.
When I wrote intuitively these kinds of characters appeared on the page without much extra effort. But when I followed the outline too closely, worried too much over my world-building, or whether this-or-that steampunk device might work the way I described it, or focused on turns of phrase, I sometimes glossed over who these characters were, what they wanted, and what they were willing to do to get there.
But in my final draft, I allowed my characters’ personalities and motivations to drive the plot instead of my delusions of writerly cleverness. Given agency, my characters made the magic happen on their own, without meddling on my part and the story came together in a gripping, cohesive whole.
Don’t Wait to Behave Like the Writer You Want to Be
It wasn’t patience that allowed me to write for twelve years and still be willing to start over. It was fear. Deep, vagus nerve-level fear, as one might feel for spiders. Out of proportion with the things I was actually afraid of, it elevated my emotional reaction from a shrug to a scream. Fear of the simple unknown became terror that I’d release the book, be found out as a fraud, and be laughed all the way back into obscurity where I belonged. It kept me hemming and hawing over the plot, the characters, the world, the production plans. Kept me from moving forward until everything the was perfect: the words, the cover, the weather, my health, the economy, the computer I wrote on. These details were an excellent shelter for my fears. They piled up to hide me and kept me safe.
Except in being safe, I was unpublished. My ultimate, primary goal – to get my story out there and find readers who get as excited about it as I do – could not happen as long as I remained safely swaddled in the self-protective behavior those fears inspired in me. I had to take the risk, jump, go, go, go. Put my arms up and run through the cobwebs no matter how horrifying the thought of spiders in my hair or how awful the feeling of their sticky silk clinging to my face and arms.
Now? I’m still me. I still worry about my mask being pulled off by meddling kids. But I don’t let it stop me. Not because I’m suddenly brave, but because I discovered what can happen when I choose to live as the version of me that I want to be true. The version of me who has Wendig-quantities of books to her name. The version who makes a living off her writing. The version with passionate readers who get excited over her new releases.
Only premonitions of these things are true today, but if I want them to be my reality, I can’t let fear convince me that they never will be. I’m a writer, so I write. I’m a published author, so I finish the books and release them into the wild.
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R J THEODORE is hellbent on keeping herself busy. Seriously folks, if she has two spare minutes to rub together at the end of the day, she invents a new project with which to occupy them.
She lives in New England with her family, enjoys design, illustration, podcasting, binging on many forms of visual and written media, napping with her cats, and cooking. She is passionate about art and coffee.
Book One of the Peridot Shift series (Parvus Press), FLOTSAM is Theodore’s debut science fiction novel, available now in print, digital, and audio.