So, you ask, what am I actually doing on Sunspin, why is this process different from Green, and how is this process similar to my aspirational efforts of so long ago?
Well, a long time ago, before I'd developed my span of control, I had to think through every step of the writing process. Character, setting, plot, POV, how was I going to manage my ending, and so forth. I can remember back in the early 1990s, when I was first workshopping with the Slug Tribe down in Austin, TX, being quite surprised when people pointed out how my control of verb tense in a manuscript would randomly shift this way and that. I used to wonder how anyone could keep track of all that stuff.
If you're an experienced motorist or bicyclist, this metaphor might help. Think about when you first learned to drive or ride. In an automobile, you must coordinate a great number of activities with both hands, both feet (assuming you drive stick), eyes and ears, attention span, thinking ahead, looking behind, all while remembering where the heck you're going and how to get there. A new driver, typically a teen with a learner's permit, can find this overwhelming. Likewise a bicycle, with the physical coordination, riding skills, balance, handing, watching for road hazards, watching for cars and pedestrians, all while not falling off.
Yet after some time and practice, all that becomes almost automatic. When is the last time you had to think consciously about where to put your hands on a steering wheel? Or which bicycle brake to use — either or both?
Writing is the same way. The functional aspects of craft can baffle the new writer but eventually get internalized. Once competency arrives, and especially when it becomes more unconscious, you can start focusing on both your journey and your destination instead of on operating the vehicle of your craft.
So it went with me. First with short fiction, then with novels. A lot of clunky, self-conscious handwaving went into my earlier efforts. Years' worth. Simply trying to make everything go in the right direction at the right pace — ie, managing the vehicle of the story — could overwhelm the tale I wanted to tell — ie, the Story I as a Producer hoped to induce others to Consume.
As I got better, I began to be able to hold all those elements inside my head. Hence, "span of control". It grew from a few thousand words, to five then ten thousand words, then novella length, then short novels, then doorstop length. My Producer skills became good enough that I could fall into the writing-as-a-Consumer mode. That in turn improved both my stories and my grasp of Story.
But here's where the car/bicycle analogy falls apart. Unless you're aspiring to compete in professional motorsports or cycling, your skills plateau some few years after you first begin driving/biking. They stay roughly in that plateau through much of your life, possibly with incremental improvements. For some people, late life changes or illness and infirmity can also degrade those skills.
I don't know about you, but I don't want a flat writing career followed by an eventual senescence curve. I want to get better, all the time. I am already demonstrably good enough as a writer, but 'good enough' isn't good enough for the career I wish to have.
So from time to time I have set myself challenges. For example, Green was written in large part because I wanted to work at length inside a female POV, to write about a woman who wasn't essentially me-in-a-dress. And I don't like being too comfortable for too long. Because a comfortable writer isn't pushing any boundaries of either craft or Story.
Now here comes Sunspin. It's a big idea book. I want a melting pot of New Space Opera and the classic seventies stuff. I want to write about love and death and the tortured chambers of the human heart. I want high tech and mysterious aliens and glittering prose that's both amazing and completely accessible. And did I mention it's big? Plus, having written two accidental trilogies, I wanted to write a planned trilogy with everything integrated from start to finish.
As this post gets longer, I find that I still have not gotten to the point of what I'm actually trying to say. I promise, though, I'm almost there.