Seeking inspiration

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If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Unless you’re trying to find water, in which case pause to check you’re in the right place, wipe your brow, and dig on.

Should your well run dry, there are two possible solutions: you could read, or you could talk to writers. You should also try not to be too hard on yourself, but I’ve never been good at that one.

The great August of Doom is over. Life rolls on. I achieve little. But talking literature (in its broadest sense) is always an inspiration, so last night I made one of my periodic excursions to my writing group – less regular that I used to, thanks to sproggage and associated exhaustion – and I now find myself somewhat recharged: still frustrated by my lack of personal progress, but a little less empty, a little less flat.

The experience of experience and evaluating the work of others is always rewarding. Ideas spark ideas: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This is horrendously trite but no less true for that. So I return to an old piece of advice: if you want to write you should join a writing group. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute, do not miss the chance to be inspired. Do not miss the chance to learn. To not miss the chance to improve, even if you never share your own work and just listen, absorb, and swell with literary power.

I suppose this is just another way of saying that I’ve achieved nothing this week. But that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe – just maybe – it’s not an onrushing train.

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Strata and substrata

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Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

Well run dry

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August is traditionally the down month in publishing. It’s when all the merry little agents and editors take a well-deserved break: no conferences are arranged, no junkets junked. Business essentially stops for a month.

This, at least, is what I’ve been told. I’m sure times have moved on, now, and there are now no rests for anyone, wicked or not. But you do still hear the old advice not to submit any work in August because no-one’s gonna read it.

So if you’re going to pick a month where you achieve nothing, you might as well make it August. Likely enough no-one else is doing anything either. Nothing worthwhile, at least: what good are holidays or spending time with the family anyway? Stupid unproductive wastes of time.

This is, of course, a joke. Just spelling it out in case my wife reads this.

All this is an unnecessarily convoluted way of saying that it’s not been a great month for me. I’ve had some personal issues that have made it hard to be my usual ebullient self on Twitter – and this matters, to me at least – and I feel like my well has drawn dry.

I know this is a phase: that everyone goes through it; that inspiration does not work according to schedule. Indeed, this is my only justification for saying this here – that sometimes you feel like you’re the only person in the world that experiences these things. Sorry if that makes you feel less special, you beautiful and unique snowflake, you. But if it helps reassure anyone, good.

Writing is a difficult, painful thing. It doesn’t take much to knock a writer off his stride: all manner of things the reader will never see. Rejection is the obvious, but writers are (mostly) human beings – all the things that can disrupt you can get to them as well.

Anyway, there’s no point moping. Sometimes the only thing to do is to suck it up and get back to it. So back I go into the land of tinkerisation, of editing a book that might need sweeping changes and not the little rephrasings I’m able to provide.

My mojo will return. I’ll wake up one morning brimming with inspiration and I’ll pour words onto the page like the metaphor that metaphors metaphoringly.

Today is not that day.

Cutting the great scene of doom

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Sergei Eisenstein in a photograph appropriate to a post on editing

This is a little story about problems, about editing, and about idée fixe. There may be a moral. I make no promises.

I had been planning Oneiromancer for years before I set metaphorical pen to paper. When I did actually start to write it was because I had an idea: a vision, almost, which involved two entirely new, off-the-cuff characters watching one of my old heroes – term loosely used – fighting a monster. This became the novel’s first scene: it seems I always begin at the beginning, when a scene is so strong in my mind that it burns onto the page.

In this case it’s proved to be a problem. Through four drafts I’ve laboured (and you can an early effort here and a rewrite here) and tinkered and hammered it around the steel anvil of dogged determination. But I’ve never been quite satisfied. So after a first-ten-pages feedback, which suggested the novel started in the wrong place, I decided to cut the damn thing altogether.

Except I didn’t. What I decided to do was to move it. Because it wasn’t at all bad, and also contained useful information. It served to

  • Give character, both in background and in personality
  • Set out some info about the world and the rules thereof, and thus…
  • …helped tell the reader what sort of book they were reading
  • Set up some causality: two characters now knew of a third

All valuable stuff. So I lifted it wholesale, did some rather painful abbreviation and set it down later on.

Except that didn’t work either. The only place I could find to place it – to maintain cause-and-effect and internal logic – was as a memory within a dream. This isn’t as odd as it perhaps sounds, because dreams are central to the story (you know what the title means, right?). But placing it here was much difficulter. I now had problems with tense (one past within another past – I’m sure there are proper terms for these, but I don’t know them) and with the same character watching ‘herself’. It also slowed down the story.

But the scene had to stay, right? It contained important information. It added depth. It set up future events. And it had to be in that place…

Wait.

Hang on a second.

Let’s just think. What’s actually important? The only things that matter are character and that thread of consequence. So the question should not be ‘how can I crowbar this scene into my novel?’ but ‘what’s the best way to give the reader this information?’

Cut the scene. Cut the whole damn thing. It’s not working. Rewrite around the problem, and suddenly everything flows again.

Sometimes working on words helps: you can always make something read better, always polish, hone and sharpen. But sometimes you’re just scratching at the margins. The whole situation needs to change. Step back. Think. Everything you want to achieve can be achieved in a variety of ways. If what you’re doing isn’t working, maybe you’re not trying the right approach.

Here endeth the lesson.

Rod for back

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I don’t know who created this: if it’s you please let me know so I can credit you/apologise most humbly for using it without permission

I have carefully, meticulously and with great attention to detail created a rod for my own back.

I have, at various times over the life of this blog, exhorted and advised on the merits of setting a good writing routine: of making creation a part of your day, of building a habit until it becomes harder to ignore than it is to fulfil. Over the past six years I’ve built an impenetrable wall of Work, the hours of which may have changed but its presence has remained unchallenged. Habits have become ossified. Paper has turned to stone.

Now I’m starting to realise that babies don’t work to schedule. I’ve left Paid Employment to take parental leave and my world has come tumbling down around my ears. I’m suddenly (and yes, I know that all this was foreseeable; I did actually foresee it, but knowledge and ‘knowing’ rarely run in sync) faced with the reality: I have to fit my work around the child.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It should be easy. Wait until she falls asleep and then hit the keyboard, hit social media, get on with all the things I should be getting on with.

But I have trained myself to work from 08:00 (or thereabouts) to 10:00ish. Now it causes me almost visceral distress not to be working then – for a given value of ‘work’, at any rate. Writing is medicine, it is sanity: by it I measure life, progress, and keep from staring too hard into the abyss of Failure. When I can’t work I get stressed and angsty and feel all the undone-ness towering over me.

Routine works: the advice I’ve given before still stands. Build your habits and keep producing. Just be cautious, be prepared: the unexpected (and again I realise that I have been in a perfect position to ‘know’ what was on its way: babies are rarely come as a shock outside the world of Victorian melodramas) might sweep everything away.

Don’t become so hidebound that when something comes from left-field the ground is knocked from beneath your feet.

The slough of despond

(c) Luton Culture; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘Slough of Despond’, Edward Callam c.1972

I am already anticipating failure. We writers are a sensitive lot, and silence to us is like a sharp slap across the buttocks with the iron ruler of destiny.

You’re probably sick of Pitch Wars already. Either you’ve entered – in which case you’ll be desperately hoping to get that magic ‘send me more’ email – or you haven’t, in which case you’ll be wondering why the hell you should listen to me ramble on about it. Again.

Well it’s like this: at some point in life you’re going to submit something you care about. It could be a manuscript to a competition or to an agent. It could be a job- or university application or assignment. You’ve worked hard; you’ve made the deadline; you’ll have sent it off with a sigh of relief and a ‘well, that’s my brain cleared of that for a while’.

Obviously, the first thing you should do is unkink with the beverage or unhealthy snack of your choice. Then…

Well, take a look at this post, written in response to last year’s Pitch Wars. Now I have a thing about odds. So the sentence ‘there’s a 90% chance you’re about to have your author heart broken’ stands out to me. Of course it’s strictly true: and this year, with more entrants, there’s an even slimmer 4.7% chance of ‘succeeding’.

The odds of being chosen as a mentee, as a candidate, as an employee, are small if you look at You vs. Number of Applicants. And certainly luck is necessary; it has to land on the right desk, at the right time, whilst the recipient is in the right mood.

But you can help yourself by making your work better. In that linked post you’ll see that the co-mentors had a system of assessing writing. A certain degree of technical proficiency is needed to get you past the first round of cuts.

So my message to you is this: if you fail in any venture the first thing you should do – after the aforementioned beverage/snack – is to make yourself better. Write something else. Write something better. You can’t lose from practice, from pushing yourself, from learning something new.

The other thing to remember is that losing isn’t losing. I’ve found new people to connect with, even if it’s a vague ‘following on Twitter’ thing. My work has been seen by more people, and maybe something will have come of that in the future. I’ve given my manuscript a good polish and that will definitely stand me in good stead. I’ve practiced pitching and have learned a great deal about the business I want to be in.

Now I’m going straight back to Oneiromancer. In rewriting up my opening chapter I created a new rod for my back in the next section. I must be ready: should an opportunity fall in my lap I must be ready to catch it; that means the rest of the novel has to be as good as the opening.

There is no rest for the wicked, and I must drag myself free of the slough of despond.

Unholy Pitches

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For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try and sell a novel with an ensemble cast.

That’s the message I have for you today; another episode in the ‘Oh my lord, what the hell have I done?’ series I’ve been running for what seems like forever. Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to write a novel with an ensemble cast – write what the hell you like – but trying to create a pitch for a novel without a single identifiable star is another thing entirely.

Yes, it’s more Pitch Wars angst from me. By the time you read this I’ll have sent my submission into the electronic ether* and I’ll be chewing on my knuckles, fingernails long-since devoured. See, the thing about Pitch Wars is that you actually have to pitch. Or at least you have to write a query letter.

Now a long, long time ago I was actually brave/stupid enough to try and give advice on querying. I think, by and large, I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I didn’t realise then that American queries are different. And Pitch Wars uses the American system.

Basically, an American pitch is – well, it’s a pitch. Basically it’s like sending a mini-synopsis or book-blurb, the kind you’d see on the back of a novel. These are hard at the best of times but when you have seven major characters, all of whom demand that they’re the star? A blurb that covers all of them would completely cover the back of a book (in very small print) and start creeping across the front as well. And that’s before we get to what actually happens to significant minor creatures, like the girl whose murder sparks a whole sub-plot and emotional wringeration, or the creepy neighbour-witch who gives another character a major fillip…

So basically I have to choose one of my cast and put her centre-stage, ignoring the rest of the crew. It’s the only way I can see to do it. But she’s not the character the novel opens with, and I worry about confusing the reader/judge, and, and, and…

So if all you out there want to save your sanity, don’t work with ensemble casts. Not on your debut, at least. Save it until you’ve got a reputation, when people are slightly more likely to indulge you. It’s the only way to be safe.

 

*Not submitted yet. Today. Tomorrow at the latest. Stupid last-minute editing