Confessions of a blogoholic

I’m going to let you into a little secret. Sometimes I post things on this blog that I’m not too happy with. Sometimes, for whatever reason, I can’t think of anything interesting or insightful to share with you. I’m left with a choice of not putting up anything at all or sharing something that I feel is slightly substandard. I try to make up for this by hitting the odd height; by working on my writing and actively hunting and retaining ideas that might later make a column; and hopefully my combined output might be enough to raise this blog to a basic level of readingfulness.

The only problem is that I’m an idiot.

It’s true. I don’t quite understand it. Sometimes the entries that I sweat and slave over and write and rewrite just disappear without trace. No new followers, zero likes, no comments – nothing. Conversely the posts that I toss out in a desperate, sweat-drenched half-hour and I try to sneak out without fanfare can draw me an armful of appreciation.

The moral seems to be this: you are the worst judge of your own work. No matter how good a critic you are, no matter how everyone around you comes to you for advice on matters bibliographic, you are incapable of seeing your own work through the eyes of others. This is why the fine mesh of public opinion is essential for the sieving of your literary lumps. I will always urge prospective writers to join a writing group, or at least to link up with other writers for manuscript exchanges – and to do this before you thrust your quivering, sweat-soaked magnum opus in the direction of the publishers. Hey, you might be a stonking genius and have created a masterpiece – in which case, what does it hurt to be told this? More likely a semi-stranger will be able to see things that you’ve missed.

Learning to listen to and accept criticism is an entirely different skill, by the way. There’s a chap I write with – lovely guy, brilliant prose-ist – who, upon criticism, will say ‘Yes, but what I mean is…’ and will never realise that I don’t give a damn what you were trying to say, that’s not what you actually said! With anger and frustration.

So always listen to what other people say. They’re always right.

Except…

They’re not, are they?

If you listened to other people’s ideas you’d never have written the manuscript that’s currently in front of you. Only you could have written that story (or played that melody, or drawn that landscape) in that way. It’s your combination of ideas, your unique characters, your theme and your universe. When people tell you something’s not working they’re nearly always right. Nearly always. But sometimes you’ve just got to stand up for yourself and your world and tell them to go to hell.

Politely, of course.

But they’re probably right. It probably was just a rubbish bit of writing. I reckon you can do better. And I’d give good money to take back some of my early submissions to publishers.

Hindsight. It’s not quite 20/20, but it’s a lot more accurate than foresight.

Cake or death!

This year I have been gorging mostly on cake. I’m not getting enough broccoli in my diet and I can feel my body becoming bloated and torpid as a result, my world becoming smaller as I lay waste to the confectionery stand. Soon I will be scraping up the crumbs like an addict, left only to lament the damage I’ve done myself.

I am, of course, talking about my reading habits over the last year. Now I have my Book Log I can review where my mind’s been going over the last twelvemonth, and it’s not an especially pretty picture. There’s not much in there other than cake. That delicious, melt-in-the-mouth delight which gives you the sugar-rush, which can fuel great things but ultimately will leave you craving more and more and more…

Once upon a time I used to work in a library. It was always my great delight to unpack the brand new books, to smell their virgin musk and run my hands lovingly through their indices. My diet was so rich and so varied. One day I’d be feasting on a sci-fi, the next I’d find a history of the railways to distract me. Then a creative writing handbook (I’ve read a lot and I’m still not sure if any of them have actually helped) might be followed by an aperitif of crime and a tiny soupcon of erotica. It was rich and it was varied and I was spoilt.

It’s always been my assertion that wannabe writers must read as widely and deeply as possible, which is why it’s somewhat unnerving to see that my own reading seems to have been shrinking in on itself. This last year has been a splurge of science-fiction with the occasional crime and fantasy novel thrown in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that in itself – I am, if any such genre-ising can apply to anyone, a writer of sci-fi/crime. It makes sense that I’ve homed in on genres that relate to my work. Indeed, I made a special point of reading a bit of Mankell and Nesbo because I have been known to claim a link between my work and Scandinoir.

Still, I’ve not got enough non-fiction inside me this year. I really, passionately believe that non-fiction – the wider world – is the best inspiration for a writer. I know of a famous science-fictiony-bod who reads extensively on parasites to inform his hyper-organic futures. Others read the scientific or technology news and then extrapolate (‘what would this trend be like if extended to its logical conclusion?’) to fuel their ideas.

For me it’s history. Now I’m sure all you sensible folk out there are asking yourselves how it’s possible to build a future from the long-dead past, but that’s not quite where I’m going. What I’m seeking for – all my life – is to understand how people felt at any given time. To understand life. And these things are remarkably easy to translate into fiction. I’m fascinated by how societies operate under stress, and if you can’t bring elements from a Saxon great hall into an isolated sci-fi future then there’s something wrong with you. Similarly, if you’re fascinated by human rights or the plight of refugees or whatever – what better way to begin a future novel than by having a shipload of immigrants suddenly arriving on an unsuspecting planet?

But that’s me. I’m sure you all have your own interests, all of which shape your world-view and your writing in your own idiosyncratic way. And that’s fantastic. So keep reading. Keep learning, keep finding out more and more about your passion, whatever it might be. Never stop learning, because the true progenitor of fiction is a busy, active and enquiring mind. Cake is great, but remember you also need some broccoli in your life. Something to make you see the world in a different way, something to shift your paradigm. Without fresh injections of knowledge, eventually the flesh will hang heavy on your bones and your work will be as empty as the calories you’re consuming.

The neverending story

How many words from a first draft actually make it into a final cut? It’s an impossible question – unless you’re prepared to go through your initial effort and your final piece line by line, hunting for changes, you’ll never know. I can’t decide whether the answer will be ‘not many’ or, whether all the structural, grammar-forming words in a piece will remain more or less in situ as the surrounding work gets shoved around, rehomed, removed or repainted…

When you’re reading a novel you’re not just looking at a single act of creation. Instead you’re looking back in time, seeing a palimpsest that’s cobbled together over a period of years and (often) with suggestions by many different people. Not all of those words were set down on the same occasion. All of these alterations were made as an attempt to improve the work in some way or another, whether by cutting or clarifying – or even obfuscating.

What it means is that although a work could have been rewritten a dozen times, some of the actual words may be little more than a first draft. Some sections will have had a dozen passes-over with the damp cloth of refinement; others are still waiting for the glue to set and to bed in properly. This is where mistakes creep in. It’s hard to keep every single word of a novel in your head at one time, and so we repeat things, make factual errors as simple as changing a character’s clothing between scenes, or leave a single action that’s now without its consequence.

This is why I’m going through Night Shift one more time. Because I added a lot of new content in the last go-over. And I don’t trust myself enough to have got all these alterations spot-on in a single pass. Where I’ve stitched in material I may have left rough edges or a seam showing. And thus it follows that a novel can never be finished because any changes you made previously will need refining this time too. But let’s not worry too much about that.

It’s also dangerous to assume that the words you’ve been happy with for years are any better. Once something becomes part of the background you tend to overlook any flaws in the flow. Like wallpaper, your brain doesn’t engage its critical facilities when you see something so familiar that it’s already somehow inside your psyche. So a passage can have been dodgy when you wrote it – or perhaps you could just do it better now, which is far harder to spot and act upon – but because no-one’s commented on it you’ve convinced yourself it works.

I think the point of this article can be neatly summed up in four words, and those words are these: writing is a bugger.

Still. Could all be worse, I suppose.

What to do when the work is done

By the time you read this I’ll have finished draft 9 of Night Shift. Now we have to ask the question: what do we do when the work is done?

The obvious answer is to put up your feet, crack open a beverage of your choice and initiate the frivolities. But, beyond maybe a small indulgence or two, there’ll be no great celebrations for me. Nor will I be rushing to send it off to agents and the like. That’s because this achievement is merely another step along the long and winding – not to mention vertiginous and pothole ridden – road to publication.

We all know what we should do upon completing a draft. We should put it in the bottom of a (metaphorical) drawer for at least three months and switch to another project. We should get away from a piece we’ve become over-intimate with and give ourselves time to take proper perspective. Then we should read the work out loud so we can easier assess rhythm and identify all those silly mistakes we’ve made along the way.

Yeah. That. But also no. Good advice it may be, but I’ve never been so fond of my own voice as to read a whole novel out loud. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to leave my own work well alone. I mean, I believe in it. Someone has to, right? As soon as I finish a project I’m too filled with excitement to leave it be. Usually I’m sending it straight out to beta-readers, to agents, to publishers. For all I know what I should be doing, I’ve never quite mastered that particular discipline.

Besides, I’ve done this rewrite at the request of an agent. She’s been waiting for a year, now, for me to produce something decent – notwithstanding that my initial correction disappointed her and I’m lucky she gave me a chance to do this particular reworking. How much longer can I keep her waiting before she forgets me/decides I’m too slow to be worth persisting with?

So whilst I’m not labouring under a specific deadline, the pressure is upon me. I know draft 9 isn’t perfect; I know full well it needs another sweep – a line- as opposed to a copy-edit.

So maybe I’ll take a day off. Maybe even two. But I’ll not be taking my own advice. Draft 9a will be underway before we know it and then it’s off to my beta-readers – if they’re not all thoroughly sick of me and of this damn novel by now.

Then, only then, will it go back to the agent. And if she doesn’t like it it’ll be back to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. And if that goes nowhere then maybe it’s time to seriously consider self-publishing.

The work isn’t done. The work is never done. It just changes along the way.