An offering to the New Gods

An author very rarely reads their own work. I don’t mean working through it, but actually sitting back and letting the words float through their subconscious, with no attempt to ‘improve’ the text in any way, shape or form. We’re tinkerers by nature. It’s an alien concept to just let the words wash over us. We’re also wincers, in the ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote something so facile’ sense.

I finished my rough draft of New Gods getting on for a year and a half ago now. Since then it’s been set back in the metaphorical closet whilst I wrestled with Night Shift and Australis. But now two things have caused me to take up my Kindle (other e-readers are available, as are books) and read over my own work.

The first thing is that I’m approaching a brief lacunae in Night Shift. Draft 9a should be finished by the time you read this, and then I have a pause whilst it goes out to beta-readers. The second factor is my Fiction (Adult) Group is currently going over New Gods and will haul me over the metaphoricals next week and I need to be prepared. And by ‘being prepared’ I mean I need to know what the hell happens. I can barely remember anything but the beginning and the end.

So what have I learnt so far? Well, my writing, by and large, hangs together in a not-too-bad fashion. It’s all correct and (I think) tells a decent story. So I’m not beating myself up too much about the errors, of which there are plenty. But the one thing I’ve learnt over the last year is to really take my time with my characters. Too many of my conversations are simply there to get a job done – to move the novel from one scene to another with a minimum of fuss. But that fuss matters. That’s what I’ve learnt. The whole novel needs patience; I need to allow my characters to breath, to express themselves.

When I were but a lad I read things like ‘every line has to have a purpose’ and ‘the story needs to be constantly moving forwards’, and I think I absorbed these mantras in a particularly shallow way. Yes, everything needs to keep moving and every word needs to justify its place in the novel, but that’s left conversations terse and oddly unrealistic. It doesn’t matter how well you know a character’s personality, past and inner life if they never have a chance to express these subtleties. My world is empty. I need to really make it come alive.

That’s writing. You start with a blank canvas and then you fill it with shape and colour and direction. Then you go over and pick out the outlines, add light and shadow, make the nebulous solid and (sometimes) the solid nebulous.

I’m not too worried about the actual quality of the prose. I’m no genius; the words aren’t great at present, but they’ll improve draft-on-draft until it achieves something approaching respectability. What I need second opinions on is the basic plot – what convinces and what doesn’t, who comes alive and who remains a cipher throughout. That’s why I’m offering myself up to creative evisceration and it’s why I’m going through NG myself. It’s been a long time, and I hope I’ve managed to divest myself of the personal link with the work which can blind the best of us to its flaws.

I shall keep you posted.

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Night terrors

Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder what the hell I’m doing. Trying to write, trying to blog – desperately trying to think of something new to say, or some new way of saying the same old thing.

Technically I’m sure I’m a better writer than I was fifteen months ago, when I first sent Night Shift out to this agent. I can feel my skills developing, my mindset broadening. It’s now a better novel. I’ve slowed things down. I’ve drawn out conversations, hopefully still keeping conflict and plot foremost, to give the characters time to breathe. I’ve added around 7,000 words in total and I obviously think that’s for the best. But when you’re doing this you lose track of the pacing. I worry whether I’m just damping the highs and lows of my set-pieces and the emotional echoes that come in the aftermath of high-impact scenes. What if my new McGuffins don’t carry enough weight and look as if they’ve been inserted by a ham-fisted keyboard-masher?

Self-doubt is a constant in writing, and it’s not a bad thing in itself. It keeps me humble and open to new ideas, keeps me working, keeps me going. But I am the worst judge of my own work there is. What if I’m totally misunderstanding what it takes to improve this damn thing? What if the bits I’m adding are clichés, mis-steps, caricature? I think I’m walking along my original thread of Idea and broadening the plot from a straight line – pitched with peaks and troughs, incidents and investigations but ultimately two-dimensional – and turning it into a more rounded, three dimensional psycho-drama.

What if I’m wrong?

‘…I appreciate the work you’ve done, but ultimately I don’t think I can take this forward…’

That’s my fear. However it’s worded – polite, no doubt, but definitely cutting and absolute – these are the sentiments that I tell myself is the most likely outcome of my year-long dalliance with this agent. I know this: I’m operating in a business and I’ll only be taken on if they feel they can make money out of me. I’m fine with that. Intellectually I know that even after two rewrites at their direction, the most likely outcome is still rejection.

‘….Your writing undoubtedly has potential but their remains too much work to do to make it commercially viable, and so, with regret…’

I’m coming to the end of the work I can usefully do on Night Shift. Just another 90 pages of line-edits then it’s off to the beta readers – if I can find any – and we’re done. That means it’s back to the agent who’s been patiently waiting for the best part of a year. This is my last chance; she won’t give me another go. It’s a risk, putting all your efforts into pleasing one person, and with no guarantees.

‘…I have to say I’m a little disappointed with this rewrite; you’ve not quite got to grips with what I was wanting and so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass…’

And that’s before I even get started on this blog. The times I lie, half-asleep, and worry that I come across like an adolescent assured of his own immortality: patronising, aloof and somehow repulsive.

I still keep going. Night terrors ain’t got nothing on single-minded self-delusion.

And this, ultimately, is a writer’s life.

What you know

Write what you know. Limiting, isn’t it? Who wants to read about an ordinary day in an ordinary life in an ordinary town where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens? It’s just a recipe for dullness that won’t get you into the top 10 ‘Amazon Bestsellers: Banality’ subgenre, let alone catch the eye of an agent. It also seems to rule out the very existence of fantasy, science-fiction, and any even vaguely outlandish title. So why is it such a well-known and well used saying?

The fact is that you know a lot. Even if you have the most boring job, the most boring life in the world, you know a lot. You know how to feel, for one thing. You have beliefs and empathies and skills, no matter how esoteric. See, I think the saw ‘write what you know’ is totally misunderstood and misused. It doesn’t refer to your life story at all. It’s all about emotions.

You know how to love. You know how to fear. You know how to be angry and how it feels to run or to shout or maybe to smash pottery on a hard concrete floor. This is what you know. And writing what you know isn’t about repeating isolated snippets of information, it’s about taking strong emotions and transporting them into situations that are way beyond your life. It’s why I treasure moments where I can say ‘oh, so that’s how it feels.’ Because then you can take that little snowglobe of feeling, wrap it up somewhere safe and warm, and then put your feelings of helplessness and isolation into the middle of a grand space opera, or below the deepest sea, or…

Imagine you’re on a bus, or on the underground. You’re going for a job interview, or for your first day at school. It’s crowded, hot (or cold) and noisy. Shoulders keep jostling you, shaking your grip on your bag. A few seats away a group of youths are playing some horrible tinny music, all bass and swagger. They’re laughing and you wonder whether it’s at you or at that girl across the aisle…

Now take that image and the feelings that it builds in you. Change the circumstances. Now you’re not on a bus but on a planetary shuttle coming in to deposit you and a bunch of soldiers onto an interstellar warzone. The situation’s completely different – but do the emotions differ? How so? Surely there’s something you can take from the one to use in the other. You’ll never be a crewmember on a 19th century whaler but you might know what it’s like to feel the knife-edge of terror and exhilaration as the deck pitches beneath you.

Congratulations. You just wrote what you know.

Your scenes can be the most alien, your characters the biggest bastards, it can all be terribly surreal and impossible. ‘What you know’ doesn’t refer to plot or setting; that’s a job for your reason and your imagination. But the way you bring these situations to life is to transplant your emotions into that world

No matter how implausible and impossible the situation, it is the heart that only you can bring that makes your voice cross centuries and your story come alive.

A letter to beta-readers everywhere

Dear Reader

So. Here we are again. How many times do we have to go through this, huh? I thought that the last time was…. Well, the last time. But no. Once again you let me down and we have to go through this whole pathetic rigmarole once more.

What’s that you say? It’s my fault? That they were my errors and you were doing me a favour anyway? Nonsense. No-one writes magic on the first pass. It’s down to you to let me know what’s working and what isn’t. If you’d have given me what I wanted initially we might both have been spared this abomination. So I’ve come up with a list of things I actually want you to evaluate as you read through my novel once again. If a job’s worth doing it’s worth doing properly and all that.

So, no slacking, no excuses. Here’s what I want you to think about.

The basics:

  • Typos, spelling, grammar – you know this. But please do draw any errors to my attention
  • Unspecified ‘bad writing’. If I could make something clearer/be sharper, or if something just could be better-written please do let me know
  • Punctuation matters. Tell me if I’ve got it wrong!
  • Under no circumstances allow me to dangle my modifiers

Plot:

  • Do you understand the plot? Is it rational/fair? Is it sufficiently complex but not over-complicated?
  • Are any threads left tangling? Any subplots left unresolved?
  • Does it sustain your interest?
  • Any McGuffins left hanging? Are there any Chekov’s Gun’s carelessly lying around?

Style:

  • Are there too many rhetorical questions?
  • Does the novel ‘flow’ right? Is it well paced, and were there any sections that dragged?
  • Does the mood change across scenes, but not too abruptly within them?
  • Are any bits of information repeated?
  • Is anything underexplained?

Character/dialogue:

  • Did you get a clear impression of the characters?
  • Were they consistent? Did they ever do anything that seemed awry to you?
  • Were there any sections of dialogue that seemed stiff or unnatural?

Other:

  • Were there any ideas that seemed hackneyed or old-hat?
  • Any clichés?

Remember, I don’t just want to know about things that are ‘bad’; I also want to know if I can do anything better. I realise that might mean the whole damn thing, but I’m a terrible judge of my own writing. I’m also lazy and, given the chance, would happily hop-and-skip straight across a passage if it’s not scribbled over in red pen with a big note saying ‘rewrite; you could do this better’.

So, let’s get down to it. Are you ready? Maybe, if you do your job properly this time, we’ll crack it this time.

Yours, with begrudging thanks

The Author

The wet haddock of reality

So the WordPress annual report comes in, and I am happy. Slow growth across the social media world – I can live with that. I can sit back and enjoy this wave of adulation, my ego sufficiently bolstered..?

Of course not. Life’s never so straightforward.

2014 has been a bit of an enhumblement, professionally speaking. If 2013 was my ‘year of getting professional’, 2014 has been my ‘year of getting slapped in the face with the wet haddock of reality’.  I’ve been forced to face up to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing. And I’m very glad to have made this realisation. It’s only when you face your incompetences that you can turn them into strengths.

So what have I learned? For a start, I over-use rhetorical questions. A small, silly thing really but it’s a habit that’s surprisingly hard to break. Will I succeed? Can’t say yet. I also over-use sentence fragments, an annoying stylistic tic of mine.

More fundamentally, I need to work on character and pacing. I don’t want to go too much into this because I’ve whined on about it before; really both elements come down to not addressing these things properly before I start to write. I’ve spent the majority of the year working on correcting related issues within my work.

But really I think the thing that’s changed in the last year is my attitude. I began 2014 by racing to complete a revision for an agent – I rushed in order to impress and ended up with a failure. Now I am working slower, steadier, and leaving more time for my deep thoughts to catch and swallow the scudding shoals of inspiration before they can lead me into shallows of superficiality.

If I manage to learn my bitter lessons and prove I’m worthy, maybe 2015 will become the year of getting published. One can always hope. But always, always, work comes before dreams. Only one can lead to the other.

Oh, and I also got married this year. That was good.