My writing process

It’s blog tour day! And that means an extra blog-post for all you lucky, lucky people. No freewheeling, rambling inanities today; there is Structure, and Questions, and (possibly) Revelation.

I should start by thanking Gabby Aquilina, for ‘twas she who invited me to take part. You can read her entry at gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk; please do visit and spread the word. For we are not rich, haughty authorly aristocrats but the mere unpublished (or self-published) peasants who crave all scraps of attention and wallow in the Bog of Eternal Rejection.

And without further ado…                

What am I working on?

Regular blog-readers will know that I’m currently doing a root-and-branch revision of Australis, the second in a trilogy of novels set in near-future Antarctica. The three books (which start with Night Shift and conclude with New Gods) are all a blend of science-fiction, murder mystery and psychological thriller.

I’m also – still – trying to get Chivalry into publishable shape. I’ve been working on this on and off for the past seven years and, at 135,000 words or so, is what Baldrick would probably call my ‘magnificent octopus’. That’s an adventure set partly in modern day (alternative?) Bradford and partly in a computer recreation of the Crusades.

Finally, I have a new work currently gestating in the murky depths of my mind. If I don’t get distracted by another new idea, it’ll be another adventure – possibly YA – set in a Victorian-style Fenland. If I ever get round to actually writing anything you’ll be sure to find out here first.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Firstly I should say that genre exists more in the mind of publishers, agents and bookstores than it does in the minds of authors and readers. I’ve never really put too much stock in the established tropes of fiction – not in that regard, at least. I want to write what I want to write.

That said…

The Night Shift trilogy is different in a number of ways. It doesn’t really belong anywhere; the sci-fi element is minimal, being used only to support the (very human) plot. The setting is unusual: MacLean’s (excellent) Ice Station Zebra and the film The Thing are probably the closest parallels. Finally, the protagonist isn’t a hot-shot detective or some grizzled veteran but a relatively young loner, lost and troubled by traumas of the past. His development over the course of the three books is something I’m really keen to get right.

Then there’s ‘the voice’. All authors have their own voice, and only the very finest satirists and parodists can imitate another’s style convincingly (Boris Akunin is the best ‘pasticher’ I know). An author’s words are like the brush-strokes of an artist; the rhythms and timings of the prose are as distinctive as Van Gogh’s thick oils.

I’ve always leant hugely on my personal classics for inspiration. Andre Norton, Philip K. Dick, Roger MacBride Allen, Bernard Cornwell, Dorothy L. Sayers – I’ve stolen from them all. I guess really my voice is a composite of every book I’ve ever enjoyed, in addition to a sprinkling of my very own fears and neuroses.

Why do I write what I do?

God knows. I’ve really no idea. I guess it comes down to all the books I’ve ever read. I’ve also a massive interest in history, and that provides an almost infinite selection of ‘what if?’ questions – and I do usually start with such a posit, hence my self-description as a writer of speculative fiction rather than sci-fi or thriller or whatever. For example, my starting point for Chivalry was the question ‘what if someone lived by the rules of Chivalry within the modern world?’ I can’t say what question inspired Night Shift as it contains spoilers. It was there, though.

I also dream desperately. At least four projects have been directly inspired by dreams, and in the stories I tell myself in order to slip off into sleep.

More simply, I write because creativity is embedded in my core and I’m no good at anything else. I’ve tried art, music and acting over the years, but now I’ve come to realise that I’m too old, too ugly and too crap to be anything but a writer. I have such a massive need to speak, to express myself; I guess that over the years I’ve thought myself voiceless so often and I’ve slipped into writing as a way to communicate… to communicate myself. I want to be understood, I want to explain the way I work. Gradually, as other options faded away, I’ve come to realise that this is my metier.

How does your writing process work?

Badly. No, not really. Just… well, a little chaotically, I suppose. I don’t plan. I get my idea and mould that rough core into something workable and logical. For Night Shift I began with the setting and then worked backwards to divine what kind of world could generate such a situation. Then I might sit down and sketch outlines of the major characters; again, this is more practical that inspirational. ‘Right, what crew are needed to keep this Antarctic base running?’ I might never look at my notes after I start in earnest.

I start the actual writing when I have a protagonist, an antagonist and a vague idea where I want the piece to finish. I’ll usually begin when I can visualise a scene so strongly that it can’t not be written. And then carry on to the bitter end. It’s only then I’ll really work on the words. I also rely on friends and family to beta-read and tell me where I’m going wrong.

I work part-time, so have enough free hours to write five days a week, either in the mornings or afternoon depending on my shift. In the mornings I’m sharper but have less time. I’m often dopey in the afternoons, but having more time allows me to work at my own steady pace.

I always, always, write to music. Silence is too loud. I like good ol’ rock and indie, with slices of folk and metal thrown in for good measure. I can write to most things, but it can’t be too ‘wordy’. It also takes a bit of time for me to ease new albums into heavy rotation. Unfortunately familiarity is best, but I do try and vary the patterns as much as possible.

How much I do in a session varies dramatically. I’ll admit to being a word-count obsessive, but I don’t have targets. I work to the laws of the local bus service. It’s also tremendously satisfying to see the word-count go down as that almost always means you’re making things better.

I prevaricate to the nth degree. I’m always pausing to wash up, put the kettle on or to just pace around the room. I’m a big fan of this, especially where the thinking is hard. I like to give the subconscious time to mull things over…

Coming next…

Right, that’s my tuppence chucked in the well. Next week will be the turn of…

David F. Chapman – writer, game designer, editor, publisher and all-round control freak. He is probably best known for his work as game designer on the award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game for Cubicle 7 Entertainment, and as line developer on Conspiracy X 2.0 for Eden Studios.

He has also worked on such games as Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Terra Primate, and his game systems have been adapted for use in the official Primeval RPG and Rocket Age. He also produced such comics as Missing, and D’Adventures of ISRAELI for renowned comic artist D’Israeli, and will be publishing his forthcoming roleplaying game of dreamshare, WILD.

Find his blog at autocratik.blogspot.co.uk. He is a man of rare wit, intelligence, and subtlety.

And…

Liah Thorley –Liah currently lives in Abingdon, in the soggiest county in England. She writes historical fiction and has two finished novels, though hasn’t actually got round to doing anything with them as yet. Her themes range from historical romance to the more supernatural with vampires and time travel. Her third novel is sitting under her desk waiting for her papers for a part time Masters in History to be done for the year. 

You can find more at liahthorley.com.

Please check both these folks out – great writers both, and lovely people to boot. Also check out #mywritingprocess on Twitter for more instalments.

Damn dirty politics

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”

— Albert Einstein

 

I really can’t stress how important I consider reading to be. It’s the foundation of your life; it equips you to dream, to work, to defeat the great monsters in your life. It teaches ingenuity, empathy, sympathy, understanding. Without ever being taught, it’s a gift we can all receive, can all give, can all share in. Which is why the government decision to stop prisoners from receiving books strikes me as one of the most counterproductive ideas in recent history.

What is the point of prison? Is it to punish, protect or rehabilitate? Just think, in the UK only around 50 people currently imprisoned will never see freedom again; the rest are scheduled to be released at some point. With reoffending rates so high, surely it can’t be right to take away anything that could improve literacy and give people – male and female, young and old – a chance to improve themselves and break out of that self-destructive cycle. At the moment 40% of the people in prison have a reading age of eleven or below.

This recent move from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling doesn’t affect prison libraries which are, at present, a statutory requirement. What it does is prevent any material being sent in from outside. The legislation actually came into effect in November, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Christmas gifts to inmates being withheld. Apparently, one of the reasons behind the new rule is that it’s not ‘secure or practical’ to allow parcels to be sent to prisoners; however, the general secretary of POA – the prison workers’ trade union – has said this has never been a problem.

The law includes a ban on stationary, magazines, books – and even underwear. Prisoners are expected to buy these items from their small prison wage, with profits going to private companies. Gareth Davies, former governor of Pentonville Prison, has branded the book ban as ‘barbarous’.

By way of contrast, Brazilian prisoners have four days knocked off their sentences for every book they read.

There is a petition to end this ridiculous situation at:

 http://www.change.org/petitions/rt-hon-chris-grayling-mp-please-urgently-review-and-amend-your-new-rules-which-restrict-prisoners-access-to-books-and-family-items-in-particular-from-children-rules-which-are-inconsistently-applied-in-any-event?recruiter=38115717&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=share_twitter_mobile

 

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News! Come Monday I’ll be taking part in a blog tour. And that, you lucky people, means that there’ll be an extra post for you to read! It’s about My Writing Process and I was invited to take part by the excellent writer of contemporary romance Gabrielle Aquilina. Her tour entry appeared online last Monday and can be found here: http://www.gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk. I’ll then be handing on to my appointees for the Monday after (April 7th).

If you’re interested, go check out #mywritingprocess on Twitter. There’s a lot of interesting posts up around the net already.

Happy Friday, y’all.

Problem child

No news. The wait goes on. I’ve heard that it’s a good sign, to have to wait: rejections are easy and come quickly, but acceptance requires time and second opinions and consideration of the future. So I go on hoping, holding off on any more submissions until I get a yea or a nay. Maybe I should be sending stuff out regardless, but I’ve got plenty of other stuff to do; not like I’m here sitting on my hands. I’m still working, if only for my own sanity. Working is good and satisfying and will all be worthwhile when the dust’s cleared. The best way to sell a book is to write another. It’s the back-catalogue that generates the interest as much as the current work.

So: Australis. Or, as it’s increasingly becoming known, The Bastard. The Problem Child. The Ugly Sister.

I wrote this back-to-back with Night Shift and, when I completed the first draft back in November 2012 I was sure it was the better story. At the time I could see the holes in NS and felt like I’d anticipated them in Australis. I had a good, coherent story with an atmosphere of heavy intrigue and set in a world that held together, was logical and true.

Since then NS has got better and better, and whilst I’ve rewritten Australis many times since, the changes have been mainly cosmetic: improving the words, the characterisations and the flow. What I’ve never really got to grips with are the problems of the plot. The plain fact that, reading it again now, it’s actually not that good.

I think this reflects the fact that I wasn’t quite sure what novel I was trying to write. Whereas NS was always a psychological thriller (even if I didn’t realise that at the time) Australis was an attempt at a locked-room mystery and a police procedural. Two books I never set out to write, mashed together.

A few weeks ago I said I was editing with a scythe and a hand-grenade. That’s because I’ve finally got my critical faculties together – and maybe because enough time has passed for me to see the work as it is – and now I know that the only way to save this novel is to rip it apart and take the underlying thread of Story and re-stitch the rest of the book around that.

 It’s hard to admit that work you yourself have produced isn’t very good. Especially when the there’s really nothing wrong with the words: they create the image you were after, they’re technically correct. Just dull and unbelonging. That’s my biggest sin. Far worse than being bad, I’ve written something dull.

 In my defense, the words I wrote seem fully at home for the police procedural I was steering close to. And therein was the problem; although I was never truly happy with what I was doing, I was allowing myself to be consoled with thoughts like ‘well, there are sections like this in Donna Leon and Henning Mankell’.

But I’m not giving up. Australis has a place; I still want it and need it. Not just because of stubbornness or because or its place in my world but because it’s gonna be a good story. Got me an intellectual puzzle, something to unpick.

So it’s back to the beginning. Thinking properly for once – seeing clearly. I’ve tried to work out what the essence of the story is, which characters I like and which need changing. I’ve added a new antagonist and rebooted the female lead. The changes are actually quite small – differing emphases, I suppose, rather than regenesis.

But changes snowball. A new character added early on will change everything they come into contact with; a new suspect, a new motive, a new location: one idea leads to two more further down the river. Droughts and floods and diversions all the way to the sea.

At the moment the plot is running the same as it did before. But I’m rapidly approaching the point at which the stream will fork. And then everything will change. It’s like doing a crossword backwards: you have all the solutions, now you have to work out precisely what the questions were in the first place.

It’s fun. You should try it.

A question of literature

Is there a difference between literature and genre fiction? Where are the lines? Is there any practical difference in the way you go about writing one rather than the other?

What it all comes down to is that I want to write the best novel I possibly can. I don’t want people to say, ‘well, it’s okay for sci-fi’. I want people to think my work’s good full stop. But I’ve spent the last week mulling over some criticism I received and also the faint praise I garnered in response. My writing, it was said, was not descriptive enough – it was crying out for detailed, harsh, uncomfortable nouns and soulful sweeping sunsets. Other people said that the amount of description I used was ‘fine for genre’.

What does ‘fine for genre’ mean? That crime novelists inherently write weaker prose? That horror is just blood and shock? Of course not.

So now I don’t know whether I want to be re-writing to work on psychology, characterisation and plot, or whether I want to be filling my worlds with texture and beauty. Can you have it both ways? That’s really what I don’t know. Of course you want the words to be as communicative as possible, but there must be a point at which literary flourishes diminish the flow of the story. I just wish someone would tell me where that line is.

It’s fun. It’s fun to ask questions. To think things in a way you’ve not considered them before. But now I have a tiny invisible man on my shoulder telling me ‘no, it’s not literary enough! You can do better!” Is this a good thing? I really have no idea if I’m improving the work or just thickening up the stew.

So what, really, is the difference between genre and literature? Someone out there must know. It can’t be the location or the form of the plot, can it? Because setting is just a medium for ideas, and every novel has a story, right? And if it’s not those it must be something in the quality of writing.

Or is it time to dispense with the term ‘literature’ altogether as a meaningless relic of another age?

Rip it up

So: Night Shift is back with the agent. I wait nervously, the e-mail of Damocles hanging over me. I have no idea if it’s good enough. I’m sure this draft is considerably better than the last, but is it now in a saleable condition? I vacillate by the moment, optimism and depression warring within me.

Strictly speaking this doesn’t really change anything. I’ve improved my work, that’s what matters. If things don’t go anywhere with this particular judge then I can always go back to the well and try again. Plenty more opportunities out there.

But I want to get an agent. Soon. Partly because – well, we all want to sell our work, right? We all want a professional to tell us they like our work. And partly because I want to get on with something new.

I love writing. I adore it. My mind is full of stories and I want to work on new things all the time. I mean, I enjoy editing and making changes too – but my plate is full with four novels that need developing. I don’t feel I can crack on with something new until at least one or two of them are crossed off the list. I want them out there so I can’t tinker with them any more. I want to be hammering hot steel again, not sitting with my whetstone.

At the moment – a fortnight or so since the NS MS went in – I’m taking things kinda easy. Trying to finish the perpetual redraft of Chivalry is a sort of background to everything now. But my real focus for the next few months is going to be Australis.

If you remember, Australis is the sequel to Night Shift and is proving something of a problem child. I wrote it back-to-back with NS and, at the time, thought it was much better. Since then – nearly a year and a half ago now – NS has improved considerably and I’ve never really got to grips with Australis.

The problem is that Australis works. The plot’s fine, I introduce some good, strong ideas and it’s still a story that interests me. But what I’ve written… it just doesn’t sparkle. I don’t know why. I think there are too many sections (and one is too many) that I wrote not sure what I was trying to say, but because no-one ever objected to their presence I let them be, tinkering only with the words and not with the underlying structure.

Now I’m trying to go through with a combine harvester, ripping up these sections and spitting out wheat and chaff to be either discarded or reworked. It’s hard. It’s basically rewriting the whole book, keeping only characters and events; and whilst most of my redrafts take only a few weeks at Rob-speed, this I anticipate will take a lot longer. Sometimes it’s painful, abandoning things I fundamentally like in exchange for a better story. Sometimes it’s painful because I’m forced to face up to my own lazy writing.

But I don’t just do this to get published, or to get recognition, or money, or sex, or whatever. I want to write the best possible book I can. I want people to think ‘hey, that guy can write.’ Maybe it’s for ignoble reasons of ego and pride, but I want people to read my work because they want to, not because they feel obliged.

So it’s time to rip Australis to pieces. To enjoy working without a deadline, take my time and really make the damn thing work. Because I need that novel – without Australis there’ll be no New Gods. Gotta have the second before the third. I can do this. Just gonna take work and application and some deep thought. New characters, old ones shifting, emphases changing…

Let’s go to work.