With MJ-12: Shadows in the hands of my capable editor, I thought I would start the new year by tinkering with a new project — one that wasn’t under deadline. I’m truly fortunate to have deadlines for books, and I still have the third MAJESTIC-12 book on the horizon. But at least for a while, I wanted to go back to some pressure-free creativity because, as I’ve mentioned before, MJ-12: Shadows kicked my ass.
I actually have several ideas in various stages of development — some straight-up science fiction, a clockwork fantasy, all kinds of stuff. But the one I chose to work on was new to the idea files, something overtly political in nature with a near-future setting and all kinds of social commentary. Gee, wonder how that popped up on my radar since November. Hmm.
I told my agent about it — I actually tell her most of the stuff I’m noodling on — and I got excited about it. I did my usual worldbuilding notes, my character snippets, my Excel plotting. I started in and focused on the voice, which would be very different from my previous work.
And then I hit a wall.
Too different? Too new? Do I even have the toolbox to make this work? Can I write from a place of rage rather than joy? Is this even my story to write? All valid questions that kind of hit me once I jumped in. It got stressful. Again.
I was stressed out in 2016 — and in fact, it’s only in looking back on it can I really begin to appreciate just how busy and stressed I was. I launched a new book series with MJ-12: Inception and the Daedalus trilogy came out in mass-market paperback. I traveled a lot, mostly for the day-job. And I had more responsibilities and more timely projects at work, too. In retrospect, I can see that I brought that stress home as well, which is so incredibly not good. Thank God my family is understanding and awesome.
So with all that behind me, and with a third deadline book yet to come, why am I stressing out now?
I was able to put this project aside for a bit while I critiqued a submission from the winner of my Worldbuilders auction — 25,000 words of secondary-world fantasy that was pretty nifty, actually. The winning bidder had chops, and the work had some great potential. It was a relief to lose myself in that for a bit, and in doing so, I caught a bit of that writer’s joy and passion in the work.
Yeah. This side thing I was working on, with the social justice and the anger? That wasn’t coming from my usual writing place — the place that had made my other books successful and good. And as much as I would like to contribute to the literature of the Trump resistance — and I certainly still might do that — it’s really not a useful contribution if the damn book isn’t any good. So I put it aside. Now isn’t the time.
And then, the muse struck. I don’t even know when — was it at the party I went to that one weekend? Something I saw on TV? No idea. But suddenly, I got fired up about another of my back-burner projects. I called up the files and looked them over on the bus on the way home. Very different feel, this project — a joyful, irreverent, passionate story, a opulent fantasy tale. I did a bit more research on it. Watched something related on TV while working out, ended up stopping to take notes.
Yeah, so I got 3,000 words of notes and something like 6,000 words drafted now.
This thing’s flowing, man. I don’t have to labor over it. It’s a thing that’s coming out of the same place that created The Daedalus Incident, a place where, hell, this is awesome and fun and I’m glad to be here. It’s not work.
Look, there are times as a novelist where you have to get the work done — like when you’re under a three-book contract and they want that second or third book and honestly, they don’t really want to deal with your muse issues because time and money. I get that and I can do that, even if it does occasionally kick my ass. Not every bit of fiction I write is gonna come from my happy place, and that’s fine, because the work has to get done and you have to have confidence in your ability to do it well. Otherwise, stay home. It’s on me to figure that out and, frankly, do a better job of juggling it all.
But when the muse locks on target and plants one smack in your brain pan, you gotta run with that. Saddle up the writing horse and giddyap. Sometimes the muse is a fleeting shadow in the dark corners of your consciousness, barely giving up a whisper. Other times it moves into your skull and eats Doritos on the couch of your parietal lobe.
Doesn’t matter. Listen to it. Embrace it for as long as you got it, because chances are, you’re really gonna like what comes out of it.