A Quick Backstory For My Novel – Part I

Way back in 2019, I was traveling a fair bit by plane and train. People-watching on the train especially got me inspired to write because some of my favorite stories are set on trains.

I came up with a challenge that every time I got onto a plane or train, I was going to write a short story.

I’d spent the previous year or so writing a near-future dystopian political technothriller thing that I had started in early 2016.

That got less and less fun to write – as real-life turned into a dystopian political technothriller.

I reluctantly shelved that project as my motivation flagged, and began casting around for new story ideas.

The ‘travel short stories’ were an easy and low-pressure way to experiment with fiction. Soon, I had a stack of stories collected as stapled-together ruled pages in a small cardboard box.

November 2019: I was flying back to California from India. I boarded around midnight, well-caffeinated and determined to stay awake if I could to preempt jetlag when I got home.

I noodled around with pen and paper on the flight, and arrived at the beginnings of a story. I’d been watching Avatar the Last Airbender and Frozen 2 on repeat for a while, and I was drawn to the idea of a magical wilderness setting for my story.

Very quickly after that, I arrived at my main character, magic system, and a few scenes close to the climax of the story. I scribbled down a couple of pages before finally going to sleep on the plane.

When I got home, I took a few days to settle back in after my trip. I remember being up at around dawn because of jetlag and sitting at my kitchen island reading the half-finished scenes. Over the next few days, I wrote down everything I knew about the story.

That excitement about the idea didn’t go away. And there was something about this fictional world that felt like a breath of fresh air, and I wanted to keep exploring.

I let it sit and keep simmering in my head for a while. I kept having ideas for it and jotting down notes.

January 2020: I started writing a ‘discovery draft’ by hand in a dedicated notebook.

I put in bookmarks I made out of construction paper to mark the quarter, half, and three-quarter waypoints in the notebook, to signal where the three-act structure milestones needed to be.

The notebook I wrote my discovery draft in.

Aside from that, and taking some brainstorming breaks when needed, I completely winged it, starting from where I thought the beginning of the story should be.

I wrote about 25,000 words in 6 months and got to the end of the story.

I now had more of a sense of the story arc, more of the forces working against my main character within the story, and more of the theme.

I also got my first glimpses at the side characters, maybe their names, and just a few key moments for each of them.

I was ready to start typing and make my first ‘official’ draft. Though draft numbers don’t really mean anything to me.

June 2020: I signed up for a writing class where we all made book plans and set word count targets for each week. Then we tracked our word counts together for three months, shared statuses, and cheered each other on. This class turned out to be pretty helpful (though unfortunately, the second time I signed up, it didn’t work as well with my process).

I made a word count tracker in Excel and intended to write about 70,000 words over three months. The plan here was to weave together the various plot threads, arcs, and random elements I had collected into a coherent narrative.

I think I wrote 50,000 words and reached the end of the story, which continued to take shape and yet kept raising more questions.

That’s when I started to arrive at my writing process (which I now use in all forms of writing): to go through multiple passes of the story, and keep adding material until it’s finally time to start cutting or rewriting.

To be continued.

A “Quick” Backstory For My Novel, Part 4.

This is the story of how my YA fantasy novel project started! If you’re new to the backstory, please check out part 1part 2, and part 3.

January to March 2022: This was a period of rapid progress in my novel. I was working on several pages at once: the manuscript itself, a similar document full of running notes, and a Notion page with the following subpages:

  • Series Wiki, where I put all my worldbuilding elements as subpages
  • Plotting Page, where I jotted down plot threads and made ‘scene cards’ (basically pages for each scene, that you can re-order as if they were physical index cards)
  • Plans and Processes page, where I put all my to-dos and Kanban boards
  • Inspirations and Research, where I listed books and webpages I wanted to read, and took notes on them as I read them
  • Practice Experiments, where I tried writing sample scenes and dialog, brainstormed titles, and worked on the prose.
  • Drafting Notes, which tracked the status of each scene (whether it had been outlined, drafted, polished, etc.) in a table.
  • Book budget, which tracked what I’d spent on the project already, like on editors.

I started with just a few of these pages, and added more as I needed them for all the ideas I was having. It was quite a thrill, this stage of the project. I had all the pages open on different tabs, and kept jumping between them as the ideas flowed! I could barely type fast enough to keep up.

Around mid-February, I felt ready to draft Act I in detail. I started going to writing sprints with Sarra Cannon’s writing community, and plodding away at the manuscript, using the Notion pages only for reference.

I was excited about how Act I was shaping up, but soon I got stuck again. I slowed down and let my mind wander, to let the ideas bubble up again.

Soon, I started to get some glimmers of answers, so I wrote a lot of scenes in my note-taking apps on my phone and computer, and as voice memos, until I finally felt confident in the story. In late March or so, I had checked every scene off the list.

April to July 2022: By this point, I’d been working frenetically on the novel for a while, and needed to make time for other pursuits, like blogging, sustainability research, and general life-maintenance. So I slowed down on the novel and set myself a more manageable (I thought) goal of organizing all the writing I’d done on Acts II and III.

I was able to do about half of what I had planned, so some of the scenes still need pasting into the manuscript.

And this is when I started telling this backstory! I wanted to share my novel writing progress with this blog’s readers. To do that, I first needed to catch you up to the present day.

Which I have – now!

Looking ahead

Now, it’s August, and my goal is to paste in the stragglers and start polishing up the scenes. I’ve also been drawing some of the scenes to help me visualize them. (It’s a lot easier for me to get into the atmosphere if I do!)

So I hope to share progress updates and some of the drawings (if they don’t give too much away) along the way.

(Oh, and if you’re wondering, I don’t have a title yet. That’s something I find difficult in general.)

Multiproject Update for Q3 2022

This is a late start to the quarter, since I gave myself an extra month to work on my Q2 goals. I spent today assessing where my projects were at and what they needed most. Without further ado, here is what I’d like to get done in the next couple of months!

Research Quest

Over the past two reading projects, I got the foundation of sustainability knowledge that I’d felt I was missing. There’s always more to learn, of course, but my focus is going to be on output – writing about what I’ve learned, and picking up any additional research I need as I go.

I still have a few blog posts pending from the first reading project, and books to read (that I’m looking forward to) from the second. And most recently, I’ve been experimenting with writing public comments and letters to the editor (LTE).

So my goals are:

  • Write the last few blog posts from reading project 1,
  • Read the books from reading project 2,
  • Continue to write public comments and LTE,
  • Try to get to the next sustainability skill: writing op-eds! I took a cool class by the OpEd Project last year about how to do it, and I’ve made one submission so far…

YA Fantasy Novel

I have a fairly consolidated draft that needs more detailed editing. I don’t think I can get done with a full edit in the next two months, so my goals are:

  • edit half the novel,
  • post regular writing updates and spoiler-free ‘concept art’ (I’m using drawing to help me visualize parts of the story) over on the Fiction page.

Art

I had such a blast doing a 10-day drawing challenge a few months ago that I definitely want to do another one. I have two ideas I just can’t choose between! Maybe I’ll leave it open, and decide when I’m ready. It’ll be a surprise, to me as much as anyone.

* * *

And that’s all! Setting goals after I’ve started – I guess that’s one way to do it.

Are you in the thick of your projects? Do you find it useful to re-evaluate in the middle of them?

Multiproject Update: End of Q2 and Start of Q3 of 2022.

I last made a multiproject update post here, listing my goals for Q2. 

I gave myself two extra weeks after Q2 officially ended, because the end of the month was chaotic-good. I went to Portland for the WDS conference in late June, and I had a huge dip in productivity right before it (because I hadn’t traveled in a while and was stressed) and a huge boost in productivity right afterward (because Portland is awesome). When July rolled around, I was still in the thick of my projects and didn’t want to stop work abruptly. 

Now that my extended quarter has ended, here is the latest on my big projects:

Research Quest

My reading line up for the quarter included a few big reports:

  • The SEC’s proposed climate disclosure rule (March 2022)
  • New IPCC report AR6, from three working groups – 1, 2, and 3 (2021-2022). Especially prioritizing Working Group 3, which focuses on Mitigation.
  • October 2021 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) about Curtailing Methane Emissions from Fossil Fuel Operations.
  • FTC 2012 Green Guide

Of these, I was able to skim all of them (excluding the working groups 1 and 2 of the IPCC report). 

I spent a bunch of time on the SEC climate disclosure because I wanted to write a public comment in support of the rule.

When government agencies propose new rule, they often open a public comment period when we, the public, can share our views on it. They post all the comments they receive publicly on their website.

I’d never done this before, so I followed the guidelines from the Public Comment Project, and squeaked my email in just before their extended deadline of June 17th. I was worried I had bungled the submission because I didn’t see my comment on their public comments page, and I still might have, but according to this article it typically takes a month or two before the comments are posted. So I’ll be keeping my eye on that page to see if I did it right. I definitely want to keep doing these in the future, because it’s an effective way to influence climate policy. (If you want to read my comment, I’ve appended it at the end of this post!)

For the other three reports, I’m mostly stashing them away as references for future blogging. I’m still formulating what I want to say about them. I’m sure the FTC Green Guide will feature heavily in a planned deep dive into the subject of greenwashing.

The rest of my research lineup consisted of:

  • UNEP Six Sector Solution
  • Inconspicuous Consumption by Tatiana Schlossberg
  • Speed and Scale by John Doerr
  • Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
  • Web Survey (of useful websites for climate and sustainability data)

I mades some good headway into the first and last of these, and they will fit into a YouTube series I’m working on. So, once more, I’m stashing them away for when I need them. The middle three are books, and unfortunately, I didn’t get to them at all. I’m looking forward to some cozy reading time, so I’m rolling those into this quarter.

In the two research quests I’ve done so far, I organized the quest by the reports. I read each as thoroughly as I could and blogged about them. This was a pretty good way of working. I wanted to be thorough and feel like I knew what I was talking about. But it was also kind of a slow and lumbering process.

Going forward, I might shake up the research quest format a bit, so I can respond more quickly to current events. More on that soon.

YA fantasy novel

In the fiction world, I had two goals. One was to finish the ‘long draft’ of my YA fantasy novel by pasting into the main manuscript scenes that I’d written in various note-taking apps. I’m about halfway through this task, so I might give myself another couple of days to get this done before I set myself a new goal.

My second goal was to finish sharing my novel’s (real-world) backstory, so that you’d be all caught up when I started sharing real-time writing updates. I did manage to catch up to the start of this year by adding two new installments to the story. One more installment should get us to the present day.

Art and Painting

This is the one category where I crushed my goals, which were:

  1. To upload my recent watercolors and vector art into galleries in my Painting category.
  2. To make vector drawings of all the plants (and fruit and vegetables) in my house.

The Painting category of this blog is all the way up-to-date, and the vector drawings of plants are here, where you can download them in the form of a PDF booklet if you like. And you can watch the ‘making-of’ videos here, if you like drawing videos.

* * *

It’s been an intense quarter and a very, very mixed bag. I feel good about my progress, but also a need to adapt how I work, because there is a need for rapid action in preparation for the US midterm election.

 How about you? Did you have any projects planned for last quarter, and do you have any planned for this one?


The comment I submitted to the SEC (A few years ago, I used to sound this formal in my writing all the time! Can you imagine?):

To whom it may concern,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule The Enhancement and Standardization of Climate-Related Disclosures for Investors.
I am Deepti Kannapan, an aerospace engineer with an Engineering Design background. I have a Master of Science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

I strongly support this new rule, and welcome the prospect of clearer and more standardized climate-related information from companies whose disclosures have, thus far, been opaque and overly self-congratulatory.

I consider climate risk to be related to a measure of a registrant’s unused opportunities for GHG mitigation. For example, a company in a relatively easy-to-decarbonize industry that fails to take decarbonization efforts may face more customer backlash (and risk) than a company in a hard-to-decarbonize industry that makes use of best available practices. (Even though the latter company may have higher emissions overall.) 
I believe the proposed disclosures will provide useful information for making those comparisons. However, I have two comments:

1. Regarding the Request for Comment #111, I think GHG intensity should be specified per unit of production, broken out by product category.  I would consider a company with higher GHG intensity (than its peer companies) in a particular product category to have higher risk.

For example, for a company that produces both physical products and web services, I would compare its GHG intensity for physical products with other companies that produce those products, and compare its GHG intensity for web products with other web companies.

Comparing the aggregate GHG intensity across all product categories may not accurately reflect which company has more unused opportunities for GHG mitigation, since products and industries vary widely in their difficulty to decarbonize.

2. In addition to GHG intensity, I would like to know how dependent a registrant’s business model is on high sales volumes and wasteful design practices like planned obsolescence. A company that produces products with shorter life cycles and (resultant) higher sales volumes than its competition (such as ‘fast fashion’ or cheap electronic products) has more unused opportunities for GHG mitigation, even if its GHG intensity may be lower.

However, I would consider this company to have higher climate risk, since its business model may not be viable under future regulation or market pressure to pivot to more durable products. For this reason, I would suggest that a measure of product durability be added to the disclosure.
Please see below for relevant literature.
Thank you.
Sincerely,Deepti Kannapan

M.S. Mechanical Engineering, UC Santa Barbara,

B. Tech and M. Tech Engineering Design, Indian Institute of Technology, Madras

 * * *

Bibliography:– Rivera, Julio L., and Amrine Lallmahomed. “Environmental implications of planned obsolescence and product lifetime: a literature review.” International Journal of Sustainable Engineering 9.2 (2016): 119-129.
– Peters, Greg, Mengyu Li, and Manfred Lenzen. “The need to decelerate fast fashion in a hot climate-A global sustainability perspective on the garment industry.” Journal of cleaner production 295 (2021): 126390.

A “Quick” Backstory for My Novel, Part 3

If you’re new, please check out part 1 and part 2 of this story.

June-October 2021: I was pretty much not working on my novel at all, because I was stuck. There were other projects that needed my attention as well, mostly nonfiction. 

November-December 2021: This is when I started slowly coming unstuck. This whole period was a busy blur, but here are the main factors that helped unstick me.

Research

I spent most of my time during the gap organizing my notes and streamlining my research process for blogging. These were the two aspects of all my projects that consistently got me stuck. I’d collect and produce so much material that I couldn’t wrap my head around them.

Out of necessity, I caught up on indexing all my physical notebooks and file cabinets, and collected all my digital notes into a Notion database. It made a huge difference in being able to find the right notes when I need them, and forget about them the rest of the time.

Media and Inspirations

The other thing I did during the gap was reading and watching a lot of media, both in my genre and outside it. This was another recommendation from my developmental editor, but I hadn’t found time to do it. I watched a few old favorites like Monsters Inc, and read The Fifth Season and the Winternight trilogy for the first time. I got pretty intensely into Hamilton.  

Reading and watching these stories after spending months thinking about plot changed the experience. I could get engrossed in the story as I always did, but especially on rewatchings, I also started noticing details of how the authors structured the scenes and set up interesting conflicts early in the story.

Noticing the underpinnings was exciting, like I was in on the secret! These lessons made writing in my novel feel achievable again.

Working Out of Order

Since my my novel was on my mind again, I started watching YouTube videos on writing craft.

One in particular, Abbie Emmons’ video about how she organizes her Scrivener project caught my interest in particular. The way she set up her project to include the manuscript, research, inspiration, playlists, character profiles, etc, reminded me of my research organization system in Notion. 

An approach I could take to worldbuilding became clear to me. I’d make a database, like the one I used for research. Instead of collecting links and notes, I’d collect pages with brief backstories or descriptions of every element of my story world. 

I’m not sure why it took so long to figure out that what I’d been doing in May, trying to go strictly in order by finishing my current draft before attempting more worldbuilding, wasn’t working at all.

I think part of the trouble was that  I didn’t know how to tackle the questions, and I kicked the can down the road to avoid them. I’d rather struggle through my current draft instead. Even though there were dissonant world elements getting in the way of the story and I knew I needed to figure them out.  

Something about this parallel structure of the worldbuilding database, where I could write many short files instead of one long description, finally brought the worldbuilding side of the project within reach.

I’ve heard a lot of advice or warnings against getting too bogged down in world building, because it seems to be a common pitfall among fantasy writers to endlessly generate backstory, lore, and magic system information, at the expense of actually building a story. I think this is true for some, but it turned out I had the opposite problem. 

Worldbuilding

With this inspiration in hand, I made a bunch of Notion pages for research, world building, plot threads, and jumped between them with abandon.

Since I’d gotten better at research for my blog posts, it made the research for fiction that much easier. Researching for fiction is much ‘softer’. I don’t need to analyze and fact-check endlessly. All I need to do is find interesting material that sparks my creativity. 

In my worldbuilding database, I created elements of the world and wrote a very short passage about each of them, just enough that I had my impressions offloaded out of my head and ready to develop. Freeing up some working memory was a huge relief and let me explore further, covering more ground. The material I’d already created sparked ideas constantly, both when I was looking at the database and when I was wandering the house, making coffee, or sitting on the patio. 

All of the notes and research helped me create a richer, more textured, populated, and atmospheric world. At some point, the elements clicked together abruptly, and I was suddenly ready to analyze the plot. And then I was ready to draft. Because I’d done just enough behind-the-scenes work to feel ready.

 When I went back to rewrite my scenes, I could imagine the setting, social dynamic, and conversation much more vividly. The dissonant elements that kept pulling me out of the story were gone. It made a huge difference in being able to drop fully into a scene and let my imagination run wild while I wrote it.

These successes were more validation that I was figuring out my process. Learning to write this novel felt agonizingly slow and painful in places, and the jumping around between story elements felt risky, so I was glad to see it pay off in rapid writing progress.

To be continued.

A “Quick” Backstory For My Novel, Part 2

Here’s the continuation of my novel’s backstory. ‘Backstory’ in the sense of how, in real life, my novel came to be. Part 1 of the story is here. I left off at where I’d written my first (typed) draft with the novel writing group.

September 2020: I was finished my first (typed) complete draft. It was around 50k words, and I was pretty excited because I’d never before written anywhere near as much in a single project.

I had a ton of momentum going but nothing left to write because I’d reached the end! Also, the story was sharpening in its details and becoming more real to me.

In preparation for working with a developmental editor, I immediately went back and did some cleanup. My writing was in many different files and needed stitching together. (Interestingly, I’m in a similar phase now, in July 2022, on a later draft. I guess I just like writing in a ton of different files.)

October 2020: I worked with a developmental editor to analyze the story structure, map out all the scenes, ponder their purpose, and strengthen them. This was hugely helpful, and I had clear next steps. My editor’s recommendation was to go about making the rewrites, methodically, starting with Act I.

I’m not sure how long I spent, but I made spreadsheets and identified changes. I came up with a plan where I’d make multiple passes through the story, each time focusing on a different aspect. Such as the character arcs, world-building, and pacing.

February-April 2021: I signed up with my novel-writing group again for the second draft. I felt ready. The jumble of scenes had clicked into place within well-defined, coherent sequences that built to their own mini climaxes.

The sequences finally clarified, for the first time, how these mysterious things called plotting and pacing worked.

For the second draft, I was expected to post chapters in the writing group for review, and provide feedback to other writers. I wasn’t sure how this was going to fit with my multi-pass approach, where I only wanted feedback on the specific story-aspect I was working on. I got bogged down in trying to fit the structure of the class with how I seemed to work, intuitively. 

I ended up deviating from my plan and strengthening the first few chapters in more ways than I’d intended. 

Overall, the effect was that I didn’t come anywhere close to finishing my draft in the prescribed time, but the first chapters became a lot stronger. And my fellow-writers seemed to resonate with some of the characters, which felt pretty nice. No one had met my characters except me, till then.

May – November 2021: I had a more polished draft of a few of the ‘sequences’ that made up my novel, and many more to go. I had a much better sense of how to structure a sequence and make it exciting (to me, anyway). 

But I started getting stuck again, and I wasn’t sure why. For the next sequence, I needed a lot more clarity on my fictional world. But I’d been planning to do a full pass on character arcs before worrying about worldbuilding questions. I kept struggling through and tried to keep drafting so I could be done with this pass. 

I was constantly torn about what aspect of the project to work on. There were questions about the worldbuilding that were really bugging me and pulling at my attention. But I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to worry about that until I fixed what I was currently working on. Which I couldn’t – not confidently, anyway, because it depended on a world building question. After going in circles on this for a while, my momentum fizzled out, and I stopped working on the novel for nearly five months.

To be continued.