The long haul

The best way to increase sales of your book is to have written another.

That’s one of those truths you regularly hear trotted out that’s both absolutely correct and of no use whatsoever. It doesn’t actually help you write anything else. It also creates the idea (not entirely without foundation, sadly) that quantity is more important than quality.

When you finish one writing project you should set it aside for a few months until you can come back to it with a cool, objective head.

Great advice. But I don’t know about you; as soon as I’ve finished something knew I’m usually too excited, too much in a screaming hurry to let it sit like that; especially when I know that I’ve only created the outline and can still dramatically improve the actual words.

Which is why I’m always most comfortable when I have two or three or four projects on the go at once. That way when I finish a draft of one I can immediately crack on with the next, cycling between them and keeping my writing hat on all the time. It’s possibly a little schizophrenic, especially if you’re moving between genres and times or whatever, but it works for me.

I’m just finishing my latest draft of Australis, the middle book in my trilogy. As I’ve said before, this is an especially radical revision and the echoes of these changes will ring across both the first and last books of the series. That what I’ve done here will affect the third is no surprise: I’ve changed the architecture of the city, and also altered the world mythos: a new background, a new history, all of which will have to be reflected in later actions. Plus the plot will have to shift as, as it stands, the second and third books are now too similar in places.

But the changes also work backwards. Again this is partly due to world-building and similar fundamental things; but it’s also because I have a better idea of some of my characters and where they’re going. I’m creating landmarks not only in the Antarctic wilderness but also in the crew’s minds and bodies.

Australis isn’t ready yet. I know this because I’ve been coming up with new ideas all the way through to the end, and all these need seeding in the early chapters and expanding and developing and then trimming right back. But I’m not going to do this just yet. First I have to go back to Night Shift and get that damn thing (which has been sitting untouched since February) one draft closer to being ‘finished’.

And it does me no harm to have a corpus of work that I can show to publishers. Not only one, but three books ready to go (that’s an outright lie: none of them are publishable as is – but they are complete, and that’s close enough in the circumstances); a coherent trilogy that will require minimal editing and proofreading. And that too is a lie, but these things are all relative.

And, if I decide to self-publish, I have my whole series (almost) ready to go. I can promote them as a whole, try and maximise follow-on sales linking one to the other. The only problem is that I really rather fancy working on something new. Ideas? Easy. Time? Less so.

But soon (hopefully one more draft) Night Shift will be ready. Then it’s back to Australis, and then the major reworking of New Gods. Maybe I’ll find time to tinker with Chivalry once again. If I ever do get any interest from a publisher than I’m sure it’ll be back to Night Shift again… the cycle never ends.

But one day at least one of these titles will be out in the public domain. Finally I’ll be able to call it done. And then – finally, finally, it’ll be on with something new. And so the corpus builds.

Know thyself

The better you can picture something in your head, the better you can write about it.

I’m not exactly sure how this works, but it does. Even if you barely describe an item or a room in passing, the clearer the mental image you have the sharper the interaction – with both the characters and the reader.

That’s not to say that you should start working on the interior décor for your entire world before you start writing. Your first draft should focus on getting the story down and you can fill in details later. But it’s worth bearing in mind. Draw diagrams, if that helps, of rooms and wildernesses (wildernii?) and continents. I can’t draw at all; I’m constantly cursing my inability to set things down in the right order so the lines cross in the right way. But that doesn’t matter. Even the act of trying helps fix these details in the mind.

I think what happens is that you subconsciously slip in details as you then work on the story. People cease to live in a formless vacuum but instead start to interact with their worlds. They pick up case-notes from a paper-strewn desk, for example, rather than from the void. Things happen in a real, solid world rather than a swirling fog of uncertainty. You also avoid mistakes; you cease to cram masses of furniture into a place you’d previously described as small.

Which is not to say that your work should be overloaded with description. On the contrary, it’s vital to be able to slip details in minimally, unobtrusively. Conan Doyle describes Sherlock in one paragraph and then barely mentions his appearance for the rest of the series. Be subtle. Use descriptions to give character and mood rather than to just inform. We never want the old role-playing cliché: ‘The door opens onto a corridor. It is eight feet wide and fifty feet long. At the far end is another door. A pair of orcs are guarding this door. On seeing you they raise their clubs and…’ (I originally said ‘heft their clubs’, which would have been better as the word heft gives an impression of weight and size in addition to the description of the action).

As I’ve been rewriting Australis I’ve come to realise just how little I knew my own world. Although I wanted a functional world of anonymous corridors, I didn’t know well enough where people would be going from and to. And whilst I knew it needed bars – and created some – I had not enough sense of where they were and how people got to them. What might happen outside? So I’ve created a boulevard, an old main drag where shops, cafes and the like will be based. Which in turn gives me a greater opportunity for plot twists and character development and…

This general advice follows equally well for building your characters. The better you know somebody, the more realistically they’ll behave and speak. This is why you see all those ‘character creation templates’ in writing magazines, given out at conferences and the like. You might never need to know that your lead character’s daughter plays the mandolin, but every little detail you add helps them grow as real people in your mind. And the better you can summon up their deep motivations the more rounded they’ll appear on the page.

Which is why I’m going back to the beginning to my next series of rewrites. I’m realising that, whilst they’re far from cardboard clichés, I don’t always know why my characters are behaving as they are. And if I don’t know how am I going to expect the readers to really believe in these people? I’m not saying it’s necessary to know everybody’s deepest neuroses down to the nth degree; I’m too lazy for that. But even the briefest sketch of the major characters will help me draw them better. Then I’ll know how they’ll furnish their apartments and whether they’d be sticklers for order or have that paper-strewn desk upon which is a fine layer of cigarette-ash, disturbed only in one corner where a small envelope lies…

A good year

Tomorrow will be This Blog’s first birthday. The internet is a funny thing: words of a single moment become etched into the bloggosphere, forever archived and accessible to all whether you want them there or not. I was thinking of celebrating with a week off; sitting back and putting my feet up, maybe sampling a nice beer and doing – well, not much. But how could I leave my loyal followers blogless? So here I am again, illuminating and warming your lives with the heat of my personality…

It’s been a good year. Yeah, let’s be positive. It’s been a great year. Nothing to show for it, maybe, but still; it’s hardly been unproductive. This, for me, has been The Year of Becoming Professional. I’ve changed from being a writing dilettante to someone who works day in, day out on their craft. I’ve learnt so much and every time I sit at my computer to write – or kick back with a good book – I’m learning more.

So what have I found over the last year? Time, I think, for a quick list:

  • Rightly or wrongly, people take you more seriously if you can act (and write) with confidence. Sometimes personality is more important that ability
  • That said, Twitting and blogging are great places for the shy to learn (and to teach) with minimal human interaction
  • There are some truly wonderful writers and bloggers out there on the internet. It’s worth spending time on Twitter just to find links to these people
  • Writing: you never stop improving. The setbacks – of which there have been many – are helpful in themselves. Rejections may hurt, but any snippets of advice you may receive are there to be acted upon
  • Agents want to find great books. If they take even the vaguest interest in your work that means it’s got something. A rejection doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s good enough to be published
  • A good submission letter is worth its weight in gold. Constant evolution is the way forwards; rewrite, rewrite, rewrite – and personalise each letter for its recipient
  • Most people in the world are really quite nice
  • It’s an insanely up-and-down world out there. The highs are utterly euphoric, the lows crushing. Treating those two impostors, success and failure, the same is good advice. But don’t ignore praise (you’ve earned it) and take criticism seriously. The critic is usually right, and you can do it better

More specifically, I’ve learnt that my work is lacking in depth of character. I also miss plotholes and don’t provide sufficient red herrings. So I’m working on these things. Thanks to a fantastic writing group and the interest of an agent I’m growing as an author. It’s wonderful. I urge all aspiring authors to embrace criticism, to actively hunt it down because you won’t get better unless you know what you’re doing wrong.  When I first joined Abingdon Writers I was so self-confident, so sure that my work was worthwhile, that I initially met criticism with a barricade of defensiveness. It’s only when I began to dismantle this wall that I really started to improve.

Every question answered, every skill mastered opens a door to reveal wild expanses of ignorance beyond. The questions never stop coming. There’s also something new to learn, new skills to develop. You never, ever, stop learning. Even the great masters – the Hemingways, the Chandlers, the Steinbecks – they weren’t the complete article. And that’s great. It’s the best thing about humanity, I think – life is never dull because there’s always something new to learn.

Feed the tree

I bloody love the subconscious, I do. It’s all somewhat miraculous, the way that a dead end can suddenly be transformed into the open highway, an unrestricted autobahn. Just by not thinking about it.

As you know (and I’m sorry to bore you – again) I’ve been computerless for the best part of a fortnight now, and it’s disrupted everything. I have no routine. Fortunately my semi-waking brain is active even whilst my fingers are idle. I’ve got two projects on the go (projectus interruptus) and I’ve been turning over ideas and problems all the time.

Ideas are easy. Ideas come and go all the time, fleeting, gossamer-fringed things that can create typhoons with barely a flicker of their infinite wings. Others can wave and beat and flutter manically and yet there’s barely a ripple in the microclimate of the mind. Not to be trusted, ideas; often they’ll vanish as soon as you decide they’re worth acting on, leaving you naked in front of the computer, vulnerable and bitter. Others kiss you delicately, shift your orbit fractionally, fractally. Some you have to draw screaming from the well. Others are like gifts from the silent ghost who steps only in your shadow. Some you can’t look at directly for fear they’ll disintegrate before your very eyes.

But if you’ve got your donkey stuck up the minaret, there’s nothing like not thinking about the problem to coax it down. Or to give it wings, let it glide safely to the green pastures of Resolution. That’s what’s happened to me. The main thing on my mind has been Australis, the second novel in my trilogy. I’ve been ripping up the old story and replacing it with something almost completely new. More than that – I’ve been writing an entirely different kind of book. I’ve ditched my police procedural and replaced it with something more akin to a thriller.

And that’s fine, except that the ending I’d had before won’t work now. The audience will see the culprit far too far before the end and suspense can’t be maintained without doubt. So where do I go from here?

The solution, it seems to me, is to change the nature of the climax. In older drafts, the killer’s identity was the key reveal. Now – thanks to my subconscious – I have an answer. Change the high-point to be the capture instead. I always write with an end-point in mind; a place I want the novel to finish. This draft of Australis lacked that until last night, when my subconscious threw that startlingly simple bone in my direction.

So now I know where I’m going. It’s just that… sometimes I don’t really think I’m a writer myself. Just a conduit for the thoughts and dreams of another, some mythical being on a different plane of existence. Do I mine my dreams, my liminal thoughts more than others, or is this how everyone in the creative industries works?

So I wait impatiently for my computer to be returned to me so I can give these vague ideas real form, a proper shape. And they’ll change, I know; a story has a momentum of its own and there’s a limit to how hard you can pull the reins, how skilfully you can steer the course to where you want to be.

And in the meantime I’m reading. Reading ‘instruction books’ on the art of writing, because some little nugget of truth, some little habit will be written to memory if you read it often enough. But mostly reading stories, living in other worlds, and dreaming other people’s dreams.

Because if you can’t write, read. What better way is there to feed your subconscious?