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An End to the Twig Experiment

October 17, 2017

I set out to write Twig with a few ideas in mind.  A major criticism as I wrote Pact was that the pacing was too intense and that the character relationships were lacking.  I set out to write Twig in a deliberate attempt to force myself to slow down and pace things out, and in an attempt to dwell on characters.  There were a few other things which I’ll touch on here.

As I decided to approach things from that angle of testing myself & forcing myself out of the comfort zone I’d perhaps settled into with late Worm & Pact (to good and bad results both), I took on a slightly more unique genre as well.  It was very much, I’ll admit, me taking stock and deciding I was in a position to take a few risks.  To not make the gamble would risk me settling into a rut.  To take the risk meant alienating readers.  With that in mind, I’m exceedingly grateful to those who stuck with me through Twig.

What succeeded, in this gamble?  First and foremost, I learned a crapton, to a degree I wouldn’t have if I’d gone on to write Worm 2 or something in the vein of Pact.  Some of those lessons were painful, some weren’t.

  • I learned a lot about pacing, I think.  There’s a lot to be gained by pacing out a story and giving it breathing room.  I saw where there was room to explore characters and inter-character relationships.  I also think that the pacing of Twig wasn’t quite the balance that’s best suited for me as a writer.  I struggled more to keep things afloat and maintain the narrative threads.  It was very easy for arcs to simply sprawl out into twice the length I would’ve normally maintained, once I’d relaxed the patterns and things that would’ve normally kept it tighter and more intense.  More on that in a short bit.
  • I forced myself out of my comfort zone in the writing of humor.  I’ve long held the idea that humor is hard to do well because it lands differently for different readers.  I liked a lot of the humor I wrote in Twig.  I pushed myself when it came to the banter in particular and I like 95% of it.  It was fun and fulfilling to write, even when it was about stupid stuff, and I want to write more in the future.
  • I forced myself way out of my comfort zone in the writing of romance and intimate stuff.  Similar deal to the writing of humor, but with the added awkwardness that family members read my stuff (Hi Uncle, if you made it this far!) and the fact it’s so damn personal, y’know?  Some of my favorite chapters are ones to do with romance and intimacy in its various forms and it’s something I pushed out there when I made Sy as connection-driven and intimacy-driven as he was, as a stark contrast to my past protagonists. It’s something I explored and I’m really happy with what I came away with, even if interpretations and comfort levels of the readers may vary wildly.  I’d like to think that what I taught myself in the course of writing Twig will make it so future protagonists and characters aren’t quite so sexless in the same senses Taylor and Blake were (in that both give the impression they could do without relationships in large part).

I’ve talked about this before, but when focusing on writing, you can dwell on the product (the writing itself, the nitty gritty), the process (how you go about it) and the context/environment (the lifestyle of the writer & the people/things surrounding it all).  With Worm, the issues felt isolated.  The arcs I’m least happy with coincide with holidays/family events.  Arc 10?  Written when I traveled to Winnipeg around the birth of my nephew.  The awkward Dragonflight part of arc 16?  Written around the Christmas holidays of 2012.  Arc 25 and 26?  Made a little more shaky by the fact I was trying to juggle family vacation time around the writing.

With Pact it was one big event (family wedding) and a bunch of stuff feeding into that or playing off of it – my mom being in the hospital on the regular, me trying to help where I could as a sibling, then also help my  mom do her part, and so the writing was distracted and it impacted the story on a foundational level, which fed into everything else, and blah blah blah.  The wedding itself was beautiful, my handling of pact in the space around it was not and it’s a regret.

Twig, by contrast, was maybe my first experience with burning out.  A different beast entirely, because it played out over a larger, more general span in a harder to define way.  It wasn’t anything to do with the writing, precisely, but starting in late summer of 2016, I started getting a lot of outside attention, with 20+ individuals reaching out about their scriptwriting, they were movie production companies and they wanted to work with [one of the three stories], they were a big name in the industry and they wanted to work with me, or they were TV people and they wanted to work with me, and so on.  A lot of interest, and most of that warranted really attentive and careful responses, with mind paid to traps and decorum and everything else.

My days off became days where I would wake up and write/answer emails from 11am to 8pm, squeeze in errands before & after, and try to get some editing for Worm in there somewhere.  Add in community management, a bat infestation (which flipped me to nocturnal, after several middle-of-the-night wake-ups), and something had to give.  The Wednesday chapters and my health/sleep schedule were that something.

I’ll say I feel like I could have made Twig better than it was.  There were a lot of weeks and even months where I didn’t feel I was putting out my best, in part because I burned out.  That said, I am reasonably happy that I was able to hold pattern without utterly collapsing or having any arcs that I look back on and feel were truly terrible or story-breaking.

That in itself was one place where I felt I tested myself and developed as a writer.  I learned a lot about myself in terms of dealing with burnout, the shape it took, and working through it.

And I know people will comment and insist on the subject, so I’ll address it here: No, I’m not taking a vacation.  The issue isn’t the writing itself.  I could write three days a week no problem if there weren’t other things in play.  Carrying on with writing restores that wherewithal and energy and helps with the burnout.

Where the struggle happens is that I was in a place where I was just trying to juggle too many balls and I started to drop some.  Writing one story, editing another for future publication, planning one further down the road, on top of all the general stuff that needs doing (managing IRC, keeping an eye on the subreddit, finances, answering the many non-professional emails I get, answering the semi-regular professional emails I get – which were super intense for a 5-month period-, plus everyday errands and chores) is what takes it out of me.

Taking a break would only make things worse.  Really truly.  The +SAN (sanity) I’d get from a break would be outweighed by the -SAN as I interrupted my stride and tried to find it again, and it wouldn’t address or even put a dent in the other stuff that’s what’s really taxing me.  So please don’t push it.

Getting back on track.  Twig.

I value Twig as a learning experience above all else, as a test to myself that I’m really glad I took.

What would I have done differently?

  • I think, based on the feedback I’m getting right at the end (from some), I really did a bad job of selling the genre, even in conceptualizing it for my own take on the story, when figuring out my approach.  Twig was always going to be about watching these characters grow up.  Coming of age, in a way, exaggerated and complicated by the fantastical aspect of it.  A lot of readers seemed to expect and want my more usual sprawling fantasy epic and would’ve wanted the growing-up part to be more tertiary.
  • I would have liked to keep it tighter.  I think, more than any of my other works, there’s a lot that I could trim without taking too much away from the story.  It’s very easy, in breaking from my most comfortable tempo (and I’m not talking about the super-high-intensity Pact tempo, mind), to try and leave room for two or three more chapters and instead end up with five to eight more instead.  Add one more scene and it takes longer than expected, which changes the structure of what precedes it and follows it, and so on.
  • I shouldn’t have made it so ‘monster of the week’ at the start.  It didn’t really play well off of any of the things I was trying to do (except perhaps pacing) and was just one more experiment when I was already employing several.  I think this played into the initial break in tempo and the fact that many readers weren’t pulled in as much as they were with more continuity.
  • In addition, with the beginning, when writing a setting that’s not plastered over the skeleton of the established real world with its conventions, and when that setting lacks any convenient labels to slap onto it (like ‘superhero’ or ‘modern supernatural’), it’s not doable to slow-roll the exposition or setting details.
  • I feel I wobbled a bit toward the middle-end, which played into signaling problems.  I had an idea of what I wanted to happen and where I wanted to take things, and I explicitly wanted to avoid the build-up to the same kind of big bad that I’d had in prior works.  But as reader responses shifted in one direction, really wanting that epic fantasy story, I pushed things that way in response.  It led to a final confrontation that was painted as one thing, only for the big bad to not feel as big or bad as they could’ve because it was never really the plan to have them there in that context.  Done again, I would’ve likely stayed the course and tried to tell a different kind of climax/end rather than one that was half and half.

All in all, Twig was a super-valuable process for me.  I really think I’ll carry positive things forward from it.  I feel like I’ve learned a lot (super important for an experiment project), I have a deep and abiding fondness of the characters and many of the setting details.

Thank you all for joining me for the ride.


What comes next

Worm 2 (Technically it’s Parahumans 2) is rolling out soon.  In the meantime, I’ll be dropping some very super minor tidbits on the Worm website.  These interim pieces will serve as kind of unofficial/prelude/tone-setting bits and will go up on my usual schedule, just as things for people to see if they’re keeping to their usual routine of checking in.  They will not be full-length chapters and may not even be 500 words long.

This will go on for a couple weeks (5-10 segments on the usual Tues/Possible Thurs/Sat schedule) and the final installment in the set will link to the site for the Worm sequel.  Links will also appear on all of my sites.  This will give me time to hopefully get some final preliminary work done, wrangle the mailing list, and (ideal world) fix my currently scattered sleep schedule.

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74 Comments
  1. I really loved Twig, and I find your tidbits about your writing experience extremely interesting, as an aspiring author myself. That said, even with my limited experience as an author, I have a lot of experience as a reader and I can say that this:

    >In addition, with the beginning, when writing a setting that’s not plastered over the skeleton of the established real world with its conventions, and when that setting lacks any convenient labels to slap onto it (like ‘superhero’ or ‘modern supernatural’), it’s not doable to slow-roll the exposition or setting details.

    is patently wrong, because Brandon Sanderson, an author I love very much, has repeatedly done it, and because you kind of managed it pretty darn well too. It may not be fit that well on serialization, some may argue, but it is definitely doable.

  2. I loved each of your stories and am excited and inspired by your pace! Thank you also for talking about your process.

  3. Coda permalink

    I thought you said you were going to put links up to the new story on all of your sites, so I’ve just been watching this WP blog waiting for it to start. I felt like it was taking a while, though, so I decided to go poking around, and I discovered that not only were the teasers already done but it was six chapters into arc 1 already!

  4. Arlysian permalink

    Dear Wildbow
    I’ve followed your writings since you were finishing up Worm (which, by the time I had caught up, you had finished), and then I went on to follow Pact live and then the same with Twig, and now Ward aswel.
    I took a break from twig at the start of the Crown of Thorns arc, as real life got in the way and I was afraid of the heartbreak finishing it would entail.
    I have a busy schedule, and while I’ve always enjoyed reading, I don’t really have the time to do it regularly anymore, except for following your writings that is, and I can only follow them due to the fact that I couldn’t not follow them. You are simply put my favourite writer out there, all of your stories have brought me everything from tears to laughter, and I always refresh the page a hundred times before an update is posted to one of your stories.

    While I adored both Worm and Pact, as a fan of both genres, Twig had come to be my favourite of your works, as it doesn’t just showcase your brilliance in writing characters and inter-personal relationships, but also your amazing fantasy when it comes to world-building.
    One of the things that struck me deeply with Twig was Sylvesters character, how he changed through the story but kept on being the same kid with the same dumb humour and motor-mouth habits was both refreshing and realistic. When writing coming-of-age stories, many make the mistake of either changing their main character too much or too little, Sylvester I feel struck a good middle with it, and in the end, despite the twisted beauty of the Twig-verse, he was what got me coming back two-three times a week. Maybe because he reminds me of myself while I was growing up, a brain that never stops working against itself in it’s constant churning, the short stature, the messy love life.
    Point being- thank you Wildbow, thank you so much for writing the best piece of fiction I’ve read in an eternity.

  5. Ada permalink

    It just really sounds like it would be worthwhile for you to hire someone. In particular, this post makes it sound like it would really, really help to have an agent, so they could handle dealing with the 20+ requests from screenwriters etc. Hiring a personal assistant just to handle mail and stuff, getting a mod team for the subreddit, something. If you can’t get +SAN from taking a break, then at least to find a way to take some of the load off.

  6. I agree that the characters and humor were beyond excellent in Twig, Lara and Nora are some of my absolute favorite characters, but it’s such a tight cast and all of them work so well. Honestly the humor and heartache made this story.

    And, I think I have to partially agree with the “monster of the week” vibe. I liked the slow reveals and how characters like Mauer and Fray stayed with us so long, but also it didn’t feel like there was ever going to be anything except the Lambs being ground down by these missions that barely connected.

    As in all things, it’s a balancing act, and one advantage I have as my habit is to wait for the archives, is that despite the fact it seemed like that was all, I knew how much longer the story was, and frankly I trust you as an author.

    That’s the biggest thing I think now. You’ve written three excellent works, two of which are extraordinarily good and one of which is incredibly evocative. And with that, you’ve cemented yourself in my mind. No matter how your 5th or 7th Webster’s starts, I’ll have faith that you’ll deliver a devastating piece of work. The past informs the future.

  7. Caimthehero permalink

    You can really see your progression as a writer with these books. Maybe the start was too monster of the week for too many arcs but into arc 10 and beyond it became the best story I have ever had the pleasure of reading. Writing a character like Sy has now set the bar incredibly high for your protagonists to live up to.

  8. Rabblerouser permalink

    Finally reached the end of Twig. It’s funny that your summary discusses “pacing” so much. I paces myself through Twig because I didn’t want it to end, so I tried to only read it when I was in a positive frame of mind and able to devote 100% of my attention to it, to get the most out of it. Much like Worm and Pact, I am happy with the time spent reading the story, and find myself wanting more of the worlds you have created. These stories have so much potential as graphic novels and I hope that publishers reach out to you to make that happen. Thank you for your efforts.

  9. Just finished reading Twig and it may be my favourite of your work so far. The way you wrote the relationships was amazing, its very hard to convey intimacy in the nonsexual sense, and a lot of writers struggle with it but you did it incredibly well. The humor worked as well for me, I think the fact it came out of the personality of Sy and the other characters helped, the jokes were always something he would logically say in that moment.

    Re the world building and genre stuff. The mystery element worked for me, but I tend to be a world building nerd in that way. It also helped with getting into the mindset of the characters since they didn’t know that much about the wider world and that became a plot point. In terms of what could be done better, we never really see what life is like for “normal” people, and how they interact with the elements of academy science that are integrated into the wider world. Relatedly we don’t really get a sense until the end of what the scope and limits of academy science are, though you write so well that nothing felt like a deus/diabolus ex maxhina. But it makes it harder to think about the world outside the story, I think one of the reasons why worm became so popular for fanfic is that people could play around with the trigger event formula and the wider world building around powers. Which is harder to do with the Twig universe

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