The world’s most scattershot progress

I haven’t said much here about my work on the current novel — the one that’s a followup to the Memoirs — in part because it is so unlike the process of writing any other novel so far, I’m too busy figuring out what I’m doing to spare much attention for reporting in.

But hey, it’s useful to talk about what happens when you write a Totally Different Kind of Book. So here goes.

What makes this one Totally Different is structural, not content-based. This book still has nerdy explorations of how scholarship gets done, and absurd hijinks of the pulp adventure variety, and various dragony things. But as I said when I announced this book, it’s kind of a mosaic thing.

See, I knew that I wanted a good portion of the novel to be the actual text of the epic the characters are translating, delivered in sections as they work their way through it. And I knew that I liked the idea of doing something like the memoir approach — except not a memoir again, because we’ve done that already. I could go for a diary, i.e. a first-person account not meant to be published for general consumption, and in fact that’s part of what I’m doing; the largest single category after “segments of the epic” will be “excerpts from Audrey’s diary.” But there are also newspaper articles and telegrams and letters Audrey sends and letters she receives and letters between characters who aren’t her, and before I’m done there will be a catalogue of clay tablets that’s surprisingly load-bearing and probably other types of document I haven’t yet thought of.

And that’s where things get complicated. Because to start with, I don’t actually know what percentage of the novel will be the text of the epic. I also don’t know how long its total wordcount will be. And then I keep coming up with ideas for bits and pieces that could maybe go into the frame story, but I don’t know for sure if they will, much less where in the story they’ll go. Like that catalogue, which I just thought up last night on my way to karate: I know why I want to put it in, and I know what will happen afterward, but timing? Who knows. Or the idea I had a couple of days ago, of having Alan go out to the Qajr to look for other stuff near where the tablets were found. How do I communicate that? Letters to Simeon, most likely. How many? Uh, well, definitely one — no idea about timing — maybe two? One to set things up and then one to say what happened? How long does he need to be out there, and how much other stuff will happen before he reports in?

I don’t know. But I’ve found a solution — and its name is Scrivener.

I’ve used Scrivener before, but mostly for nonfiction: my Patreon posts, the Dice Tales essays before them, various other projects. I’ve only used it for a novel (its ostensible purpose) once, while writing Chains and Memory; after that I went back to my usual habits, in part because I find Scrivener horribly clunky when it comes to formatting.

But here? It’s a godsend. Because I can make each bit of the mosaic its own item in Scrivener, with bits of the epic labeled IN ALL CAPS so I can spot them at a glance . . . and then I can make a folder of bits that will maybe go in somewhere but I don’t know where or when, and write them as they come to me. They still count toward the total wordcount of the draft, so I can tell I’m making good daily progress even if the actual continuous text of the novel stalled out several days ago on a half-written Hadamist bulletin; I’ve accumulated three finished “scenes” there and notes or partial drafts for four more. When I decide where to put them, I can simply drag and drop, instead of having to page back and forth through the manuscript.

Yes, this means I’m writing nonlinearly. Yes, this is MASSIVELY WEIRD FOR ME. I basically haven’t done this since I was, uh, seventeen? Occasionally I’ll let myself skip ahead and write a later bit if it’s clear in my head and I’m stuck on what goes before, but on the whole, making myself take the story in order was vital to me finishing my first novel, and I’ve worked that way ever since. But I’ve finally accepted that this novel just is. not. going to work that way. Tomorrow I might go back to working on that Hadamist bulletin . . . or I might write up that catalogue and what happens after it, even though that probably won’t take place until at least halfway through the novel. I have a complete letter from Isabella to her granddaughter; I don’t know what will spark it, just that I want it to be sparked, and since I knew what I wanted it to say, I went ahead and wrote it.

Of course I’ll have to revise it later, once I know exactly what the context is. But better to nail down its general shape now and polish the specifics later, than to stall out tens of thousands of words earlier because I’m not yet sure how to get from E to Q.

So if you need me, I’ll be over here with a pile of mosaic pieces and a half-finished picture on the floor, trying to decide exactly where each tile should go.

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