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 Multi-Project Update for Q2 2022

I last made a multi-project update post here, and I’d like to start doing one every quarter. They help me stay focused(ish) and might help you make sense of my scattered updates.

Here are my projects this quarter.

• Research quest: I have a new lineup to read, as well as a couple of posts to write from last time around. I’ve defined the project here.
I’ve made a little progress, and yet I’m feeling strangely confident about getting through it. Expect some more updates on my reading soon!

• YA fantasy novel: I’ve been sharing updates here. My goal for this quarter is to finish the ‘long draft’, which is what I call the draft that has everything I want to put in, and can then start cutting down.

Currently, I have all the scenes I want, though a few are in outline form.

So my next task is to flesh out the newest scenes and paste the material hanging out in various note-taking apps and my (transcribed) voice memos into the main draft.

My second goal is to finish sharing my novel’s (real-world) backstory, which I started here.

• Art & Painting
I don’t usually have any goals to speak of related to art, since I prefer to just draw or paint when I feel like it. But this time, I have two goals:

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.
I’ve also been using my art in blog posts and other media. So I want to continue to do that.

Okay! There’s a lot going on. Let’s see how I do!

I’m Giving This Planning Thing A Try

I’ve been an engineer for 6 years now. You might assume that being organized comes naturally. You’d be wrong.

I got into engineering because I love math and science. Math is like a way to see the world in a different lens, like being able to see more wavelengths, or having a new way to describe what you see, and find connections between seemingly disparate things.

In engineering, the math and analysis fit into a larger picture with many moving parts: teams working on different aspects of different modules, many stages of design and testing and manufacturing, and schedules to get through each phase, and funding that’s available for each phase. Those are factors that decide what math problems you get to work on and when, based on what is needed to get the project to the next phase.

All of that context dissolves when I get in front of the math problem. Then it’s just me, a page full of symbols, and the colors and geometrical shapes and curves in my mind.

I can’t ‘math’ my plans

Superficially, planning looks a bit like math and science. It’s a bit like modeling the process of making something, similar to how a scientist might model a chemical reaction or a geologic process. That similarity is what tripped me up.

Predicting what I’ll do tomorrow is not at all like a geologic process. It depends on more factors than can be modeled, including my energy state, whims, what other people I meet, the state of the economy and news, etc.

If one were to even try to model that (which I never would; the mere thought chills the blood), it would require massive amounts of information I don’t have. I’d have to know the state of every neuron and blood cell in my own body, and in every other person’s who might be on my team, every variable that governs the economy and what tasks my company assigns me, and so on. 

Even if one could collect all that information, it wouldn’t be enough. The system that governs your work life is what we’d call ‘chaotic’, meaning that its outcomes depend on the slightest change in one of those variables. Commonly known as the butterfly effect.

Anyway, that is an aside to say planning is not at all like modeling, but I wanted it to be. I would never guess or rely only on intuition when answering an engineering problem (though intuition plays a huge role), but that is all you can do when planning. You can collect data on how long things usually take, and try to be a bit more rigorous in predicting what might happen, but deep down, I knew my projections were based on guesswork, hope, and good-enough reasoning. And I hated it. It felt like lying.

Novel projects are great for planning practice

Novelists have it right. There are lots of resources on how to plan writing a book, but the essence of it is to divide the project into ‘drafts’ (first draft, second draft), estimate the length of your book, and then schedule out writing sessions over a few months with a word count target.

This process defines the basic unit of progress as ‘words’ and the only goal is to produce them, or revise sections of them. The ultimate goals of defining the story, solving plot problems, improving the prose, etc. are not official goals  –  they are too hard to quantify and too mysterious to plan. But the task of showing up and writing every day is enough to achieve all of them.

When I wrote the first draft of my novel, I made a spreadsheet word count tracker (which you can download here if you’d like to try it). I needed to customize it because I was writing in multiple documents for separate story threads, and needed to add all the word counts together. A pretty graph ticked up every day as I added words, and was motivation enough to keep going when the story seemed full of problems. Best of all, I had a sense of how much there was left to do in this draft – the number of words left to get to my target.

Now, just writing that number of words doesn’t make a draft complete. I considered the draft complete when I got to the end of the story since I already had an end in mind. But the word count correlates to that, since I had rough milestones in the story that were expected to occur at specific percentages of the book, so I could tell if I was running short or long depending on where the milestones hit. I ended up with a shorter draft than planned, but that doesn’t matter since the word count was just a metric for tracking. The story came, which is what really matters.

For subsequent drafts, I’ve been adapting the process even further. There isn’t as clear a metric of progress as there was in a first draft (discovery draft), since I jumped wildly from world-building, plotting, drafting, researching, and every other process.

I’m a ‘methodological pantser’ per  Ellen Brock’s categorization of writer styles, and figuring that out has been a game-changer.

(You may have heard of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ – Ellen expands this categorization to better capture the variety and specificity of writing styles. Methodological pantsers use a lot of systems and methodology, but we jump around from one to another as inspiration dictates.)

As a methodological pantser, I tend to switch between processes as needed. For each process, I figured out a unit of progress, like:

  • Number of entries added to my worldbuilding wiki.
  • Number of research materials read.
  • Number of words of brainstorming or tone experiments.

Those were the equivalent of my pretty word count graphs that told me how far I’d come. At the basic level, the planning unit was the same – writing sessions. The plan was simple. Sit down for ~20 minutes some 8 times a week. Each time, log the units of progress. Occasionally project forward to see how many more pages or references or chapters there are to go. The end.

Now I approach engineering (and all projects) like writing

The science and math and design of an engineering project tell me what is needed to be done. Write this piece of code, solve that equation, order such-and-such tool. The writing-inspired planning process tells me how to do it. Figure out the unit of progress (which is usually the number of discrete tasks left to get to the result)  – schedule out some sessions, work on the next task for 20 minutes or so, and log how far there is left to go.

This is a squishy, unpredictable, human process in the midst of a bunch of predictable and precise physical and mathematical processes. It always was, but at least now I’m letting it be true to its (my) squishy, unpredictable nature. Progress in a project is something you can only describe. You can’t model or predict it, and I don’t try to. Improving my ability to understand what I’m doing and how far I am from my goal has made a huge difference, not least because I can ‘feel’ the progress even when I’m stuck and the symbols blur together on the screen.

Engineering and science were always a creative endeavor of inquiry, and approaching them like a novelist is the best way to embrace that.

A Belated Multi-Project Update – Fantastical Research Quest

What projects am I working on in February 2022?

Sustainability Research

I’ve been learning about sustainability since about 2018, and gradually picking up speed. In the term ‘sustainability’ I include related topics like climate change, environmentalism, and green technology.

Combined, they are a vast web of topics and it’s been difficult to know where to start. Last year, I took a bunch of climate-related online courses (the first three were free or take optional donations):

… and that gave me a much better overall grasp of what I needed to learn in the first place. I’d recommend them all, but the first one especially, if you’re new to the subject. (I have no affiliation to any company or brand linked in this post.)

This quarter (January-March 2022) is the first time I’ve set myself a clearly-defined research project in this area, with a reading list and a deadline. I’m hoping that will help me make more regular progress.

I haven’t been doing a great job of documenting my progress thus far, and I want that to change. I’ve been collecting all my research updates here.  I’m also doing a revamp on this website – I want to turn it into more of a comprehensive resource wiki, where you can look up any topic or question about sustainability that I’ve ever researched.

My YA Fantasy Novel

I started the novel back in 2020, when an idea for a protagonist, setting, and magic system hit me all at once out of nowhere. I picked it up again in December 2021 after a lull where I was still figuring out my writing process. I post novel updates here.

I haven’t shared any details about the novel yet, and I’d like to start breaking the cone of silence this quarter.


Lastly, my painting isn’t quite a project the way I define it (something with goals and parameters, and occasionally a deadline). Painting is more of a practice I do to restore myself and enjoy my surroundings. However, I am listing my painting portfolio as a project that I update here.

* * *

So those are my projects for the quarter, and it’s a far more structured list than usual. I intend to document the journey here on the blog.

Below, I’ll comment on some questions you may have (or rather, that I ask myself constantly).

Why am I doing so many different things at once?

While working on fiction, nonfiction, and art at once goes against the conventional wisdom that you must pick ONE project for a period of your life, after a bit of experimentation, I’ve found that this is what works for me. I’ve done the thing where I’d be ‘just’ one thing for three months or a year or a season. It turns out to make me miserable, sort of like if you decided to only eat one food group for a whole year.

I’m not suggesting that this is ‘the’ correct way to do it, but it is ‘a’ correct way for me. I’m what they call a ‘multipotentialite’ – also referred to by various terms: Renaissance (wo)man, polymath, Scanner. They have different connotations some times (the first two especially are commonly applied to famous dead people) but I use them to mean ‘someone seriously pursuing multiple interests’.

Any notion of ‘ONE project at a time’ does NOT help me, but rather, one project per area of life.

What novel draft am I on?

Knowing how I like to work has been a huge improvement and an ever-evolving process of discovery. On the fiction front, an insight that changed how I approach writing (and all projects) was Ellen Brock’s categorization of writer styles.

You may have heard of ‘plotters’ and ‘pantsers’ – Ellen expands this categorization to better capture the variety and specificity of writing styles. Per her system, I identify most as a ‘methodological pantser’ – one of the most chaotic styles. We use a lot of systems and methodology, but we jump around from one to another as inspiration dictates.

Learning this has shown me that rather than try to pre-decide what aspect of a novel (or other project) I’ll work on, I need to instead capture ideas as they come, in the order they come in, and then organize them into a useful form. Imposing a small amount of structure on what I pursue is beneficial, but just enough. 

All this to say, I’m not sure what draft I’m on because there isn’t a clear demarcation between drafts. I spent most of December 2021 on worldbuilding. Now, in February, I’m drafting in earnest. If pressed, I’d tentatively say I’m on the 2nd draft.

How do I keep track of and break down these projects?

I’m essentially following Sarra Cannon’s HB90 method, with a few tweaks. I use Notion to track most of my project tasks in Kanban boards. I also have a ton of notebooks. I like to use notebooks for coming up with ideas and writing stories. I prefer to do most of my project planning and tracking in digital form.

I’ll expand on my process of planning and tracking for the research and novel projects by and by. I don’t intend that to be a teaching resource or tutorial – I’ll link the ones I’m learning from, but I’m not an expert at it – but rather just another aspect of the research quest to document.