The Writing Process and M.J. Locke

M.J. Locke, also known as Laura Mixon author of Up Against It, and also one of my teachers from Viable Paradise XIII, gives us some insight into her writing process. Thanks, Laura! (And I get the characters are real thing. I totally get that.)

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Tamago: Do you have a regular drafting process, or does your drafting process vary from book to book? Can you describe it to us generally, or at least for one project?

Laura: I’m a pantser. I get my core concept down, figure out the few major beats I know have to happen, then dive in and figure the rest out as I go.

The key thing, once I get started, is to commit to getting pages written on a regular basis. So I haul out my project management tools. For each book, I commit myself to daily or weekly time and page targets, and then I track the word count in a spreadsheet (so I can see my progress).

The level of commitment I can give to a book on a daily basis has varied drastically throughout my adulthood. Up until last fall I had a day job nearly all my adult life (30 years). Before I had kids, I would commit to one-to-two hours per night, three week nights, and at least three hours per day each day on the weekend. (As you can imagine, household chores were not a priority!) Once we had kids, and particularly when I was doing consulting work (which involved brutal hours and lots of travel) my writing slowed way down. An hour or two every week or so was all I could manage between 2000 and 2013. I admire people who can keep going with that kind of schedule, but I couldn’t.

Now that both girls are in college and Steve got a great Hollywood gig that replaced my day-job income, I’m writing full time again and have about half a novel finished (yay!).

As a full-time writer, I make myself a schedule that blocks out time for writing, as if I were in a day job. It both helps me stay on track and lets friends and family know when I’m available and when I’m not. My current weekly commitment is for about 24 hours a week of putting words on screen, and about 16 for blogging or research. Luuuuxury!

The key to success is to keep moving. Time can slide by without you even noticing. So I track it. It doesn’t matter if it’s crap and I have to throw it away again later; the trick is to hold myself accountable to put words down every day, or almost every day.

Tamago: Which part of writing–drafting, revising, critique from others–do you enjoy the most? Why? The least? Why?

Laura: I love both drafting and revising: drafting because I LOVE making weird shit up and surprising myself; and revising because it feels to me like sculpting—coaxing the story out of the weeds, shaping the theme and character development and plot into something smooth and sleek. (At least, that’s the goal. 🙂

Getting critiques I am not crazy about, because I have a bad case of Writer Brain and am always convinced everything I write is crap, but it’s absolutely essential, so I always use beta readers before sending a manuscript out.

Tamago: In your most recent book, Up Against It, you have at least two major stories intertwined in one book. In what ways do you keep track of so many plot threads and interactions?

Laura: Ha! I tried to make UP AGAINST IT just Jane’s story, but there was so much else going on that I couldn’t plausibly draw Jane into that I finally gave up and went back and introduced several more viewpoint characters.

To keep track of my plot lines and technology and so forth, I use a couple of techniques. I white-boarded the characters’ stories in a big-picture way so I could see where the beats fell. For the world building, science and tech, I usually use an Excel workbook with calculations, drawings, and notes. For the characters and plot, I keep a notes file in Word, with character descriptions and sort of a running conversation with myself as I progressed, about what was going on, what a particular character was up to, what would happen next, and so on.

For upcoming books, I am curious to experiment with a wiki software, so the stuff I settle on is better organized. (Especially because I’m in the planning stages for several more books in WAVE, the series that UAI is the first of.) I’ll probably also keep the running notes and Excel files as those work well for me, and port stuff over that I think is useful.

But also, once those characters come to life in my head, they really keep track of a lot of stuff on their own. I know that sounds weird; they’re not REALLY real. But they feel real. I have to brace myself when I’m approaching the end of a book for the sense of loss I feel when I finish. There’s a part of me that—as much momentum as I usually have by then, as eager as I am to know how it’s all going to come out—doesn’t want to finish. Because that means I have to say good-bye to all these people I care about.

Tamago: What comes first to you as you start a draft? Idea? Character? Image?

Laura: An image, almost always.

For instance, for PROXIES, I’d read a popular science magazine about how telepresence might work, and I had this flash of a man in an android body, looking down at his own flesh-and-blood body, which was lying in a creche. He felt hatred for that body and wanted to kill it. That became the seed at the heart of the book.

For GLASS HOUSES, I saw a young woman piloting a junky old ROV up a fly line toward a ruined skyscraper, in a drenched, climate-changed NYC. (I also used that robot-double-vision thing that I used in PROXIES.)

For BURNING THE ICE, I saw a young woman trapped in a thick glass bubble, with flames inside with her and a frozen world outside.

For UP AGAINST IT, I had this image of an older woman out among the asteroids. She’s in a spacesuit and using tethers to swing along these “treeways” like a high-tech primate. She looks over her shoulder at the Earth, which is a tiny blue dot, and all of a sudden she hears the voice of God in her head.

For my current book, CHILD LEFT BEHIND, I saw a little girl, seven or eight years old, holding onto her grandmother’s hand, standing at a launchpad at Cape Canaveral, and watching as a rocket carrying her parents to Mars blasts off.

(I can’t remember what sparked ASTROPILOTS or GREENWAR.)

Tamago: How many drafts of a project do you write?

Laura: As many as it takes. 🙂

Typically, three. I revise as I go, so by the time I finish my first complete draft, it’s actually been pretty well worked over. Then I get at least one beta read—preferably more—and do a redraft before submitting to an editor. The editor will provide comments and I rework again. That’s usually it… though both PROXIES and BURNING THE ICE needed more. They were both very unwieldy.

Tamago: Do you plan your characters, or do they emerge organically from the text? Do your characters change in your drafting process?

Laura: They emerge organically. They can change, but typically not a lot.

Tamago: How much does research play a role in representing the science “fiction” in your work?

Laura: I do research sporadically. I tend to throw stuff in so I can play around with it and then research as much as I need to to keep it plausible.

I am an engineer and I really love science and technology—especially the space and computing and environmental sciences. I also give myself permission to break the rules of known science if it’s important to the story… for instance, in PROXIES and BURNING THE ICE, there is instantaneous communication across long distances, which violates Einstein’s theory of general relativity. One of the reasons my Wave series isn’t set in the same universe as Avatars Dance (GH, PRX, and BTI—my telepresence trilogy) was because I wanted to jettison instantaneous comms.

Another example of some counterfactual stuff… in UAI, I have a solar civilization that mines methane ice from the Kuiper belt (which as far as we know, doesn’t have very much organic matter), when there is methane much closer in, because I liked the idea of cosmic snowballs being nudged down the gravity curve. I’ve come up with a rationale that will appear in later books, but nerdy physics and xeno-chemistry fans will probably still argue with me about it (like they already do).

Tamago: How do you know something you’re writing isn’t working?

Laura: When I stall out. It means I’ve gone off on a wrong tangent.

I back up and take a different path, and that usually does the trick. Or I do some of those exercises I’ve taught at Viable Paradise—juxtaposing three random words, playing 20 Questions with myself, etc.

Tamago: Do you belong to a writer’s group, or do you work alone? Why have you chosen the approach you have?

Laura: I’ve done both. Right now I work alone, because I haven’t felt as much of a need for a writer’s group as I used to. But I learned a lot when I did participate, and enjoyed having that connection with other working writers.

Tamago: After the initial break-in moment (your first book, agent, or assignment), what are the moments/accomplishments that you feel define you as a writer?

Laura: Hmmm.

When I saw the artwork for the serialized Analog version of GLASS HOUSES. It was so perfect—different in some ways from what I had imagined, but just magnificent. It was the first time I got a real sense of what other people were doing in their heads with my words.

In general, the moments that have meant the most to me are when I’ve found out that I’ve made a deep connection with a reader, at a reading or a kaffeeklatsch, or signing or whatever. When someone comes up to me and says they read one of my books and it made a big impact on them. Or when I read a review that makes it obvious that the reader really got what I was trying to do—even if there were things they disagreed with. I’ve been very fortunate that a number of academics have written about my works, and it pleases me that they are grappling with the themes I like to fiddle around with, and tease out meaning from them. I love SFF fandom—I think there’s this great societal dialog around cool ideas in our corner of the world: this love of the strange, and a willingness to engage with others that I’ve always appreciated. Feeling as if I’ve contributed to that dialog in some small way is very rewarding.

That feeling of connection with an intelligent and passionate readership is really what makes it all worthwhile.

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