Alec Austin (alecaustin) wrote,
Alec Austin

Writing Process Blog Tour

So several of my friends (most proximately mrissa) have been blogging about their current projects and writing process as a part of a Writing Process Blog Tour. The questions in the prompt were interesting enough that I figured it wouldn't be bad to join in. (You can find Marissa's post here.)

1) What am I working on?

My current project has the working title of Coup de Grace. It's a military science fiction novel set in a North America wracked by demographic transitions, climate change, and the after-effects of a coup that turned New York City and Washington DC into radioactive craters, triggered a continent-spanning civil war, and has led to the decades-long military occupation of much of the American South.

Carl Olson and his classmates are cadets at a military academy in Minneapolis which trains the security forces of the Pan-Columbian Republic (a state formed by the union of the US, Mexico, and Canada). They're sworn to defend the Constitution of the PCR-- which has been suspended as long as they've been alive-- against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But when the Commandant of the Academy has them rescue a dead Senator's heir from Separatist guerillas, it becomes clear to Carl and his friends that the line between patriotism and treason is a blurry one, and that hard-liners in the the Army and Senate regard them and their instructors as enemies of the state.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The impetus that prompted me to write Coup de Grace was what I perceived as the cookie-cutter template of many dystopias. Take an oppressive central government, add in one or more young people who, through inclination or circumstance, are primed to rebel, and give them an external group of freedom fighters to join. Don't get me wrong: there are books which use that template that I've enjoyed. But it made me wonder what a differently-biased dystopia, which actually tried to address the complexities of politics and political violence, would look like.

As such, the Pan-Columbian Republic is more like present-day China or Russia than the Districts of the Hunger Games. The rebels fighting to overthrow it aren't noble freedom fighters-- they're largely neo-Confederates, Dominionists, and other reactionaries who feel they would be justified in killing large swaths of the (majority-Hispanic) population. Meanwhile, our protagonists are a part of the system, and have reasons to love their country as well as an acute awareness of its flaws and internal divisions.

While Coup isn't near-future SF, the PCR's long war and censorship regime have both slowed and maintained technology to the point where the tech permeating everyday life is recognizable, rather than being in decay, or so advanced it might as well be magic. Carl and his friends play for the Academy e-sports team, and wear headsets which function as cell phones and computers (as well as heads-up-displays in combat). People still drive cars, though they're all hybrid or electric, but everyone except cops, truckers, and the military takes buses and light rail to get places. The future is unevenly distributed, and it's left much of the PCR behind.

I'm also doing my best to take the military dimensions of the novel seriously, without letting the jargon and command structure overwhelm everything. Because Carl and his friends are both soldiers and cadets, they have to do PT, take classes, and have to practice and qualify with their weapons. They swear a lot, in both Spanish and English. They have a chain of command, rules of engagement, and have to follow orders. They practice muzzle and trigger discipline.

They also kill a lot of people, and have to live with the consequences.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I tend to joke about how upbeat and cheery my work is, but I don't set out to be dark. It's just that I'm hyper-aware of the conventions of (modern, popular, English language) narrative and how they tend to produce a very constrained range of content, characters, and points of sympathy. One of several ways I respond to these constraints is to twist things around; to interrogate the conventions that annoy me and follow through on the implications of what I find. (For example: the Braveheart trope, or all freedom fighters are good! Or raw jingoism, where anything Our Boys do is good! Yeah. About that...)

Another factor that motivates a lot of my narrative choices is compassion. I ask myself questions like, "What would drive someone to join the Nazgul?" and try not to stop at the first (read: glib) answer. People mostly aren't cardboard villains or cartoon heroes, and it doesn't add to our stories when we portray them that way. Hayao Miyazaki is one of my favorite creators for this reason. See his depictions of Princess Kushana in Nausicaa, Lady Eboshi and Jigo in Princess Mononoke, and Yubaba in Spirited Away. These are nuanced and comprehensible characters, even when they're being selfish, proud, or opposing the protagonists.

That doesn't mean they're always right, mind you. But how boring stories would be-- and how alien the characters in them would seem-- if they were always right!

4) How does your writing process work?

My writing process, such as it, is often kick-started by coming up with particularly vivid set-pieces. Once I've got one or two set-pieces to drive toward-- a magister who can turn his staff into an powerful electromagnet facing down a hallway full of crossbowmen, for example-- I start poking at the implications and consequences of a world where such things make sense. Often the initial phrase or image that inspired a book or story doesn't survive the development process. That's fine; ideas are cheap.

Once I feel like I have a clear idea of what happens first, I start writing. My process from there involves a lot of sitting around figuring out what needs to happen next. Some people can think on the page, throwing stuff at the wall during their early drafts and seeing what sticks, but that doesn't usually work very well for me. Doing my thinking before I start writing frees me up to improvise within constraints, rather than first being paralyzed by possibilities, and then paralyzed by the conviction that I've taken a wrong turn and won't be able to continue until I figure out how many of the pages I've just written need to be thrown away.

That said, while I often need to pause and think about what comes next (and sometimes research specific topics, like riverboats of the Yangtze, or political philosophy), I usually have a fairly clear notion of where I'm going. Especially with longer works, like books or novelettes-- I've never written a novella, and given how few places are looking to buy them, I don't mean to start-- I tend to have both a bunch of snippets from the end of the story written before I write the middle, and elaborate playlists and mixes made up of songs that will get my head in the right space and remind me of the emotional and dramatic beats I intend to hit. The typical result of this is that writing the middle of any story is the hard part-- by the time I get to the end, I tend to have a lot more clarity, as well as bits of prose that I can incorporate or discard in my wild rush to the finish.

Anyway, that's what I'm working on, and how I think about and do these sorts of things.

The standard way of doing this "tour" seem to have three people lined up to follow you next week, but I don't really like pushing chain letters or posts on my friends. So here is Marissa Lingen's process post (also linked to at the start of this post), and Michael Merriam's. If you feel like continuing things with a post of your own, indicate that in comments.
Tags: process, theory, writing
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