Writing uphill

‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’

Douglas Adams

I currently have five books on the go. It’s too many. I need to put some of these to bed before I go insane.

I like multitasking. I always think it’s good for the brain to have several different levels of activity. At the front of the mind is your active project, the job that’s right before you. Behind that is the thing you did last, or you’re planning to do next, and beyond that the deeper images in the mid-memory. Your ideas pool swirls right at the back, ready to be called on at any moment – or ready to pounce upon you when you least expect it.

And though the majority of your energy is spent in your short-term memory, it does you good to have other things simmering away in the background. A little time not actively thinking about your work can invigorate it and give you answers to questions you were only dimly aware of posing. It’s good.

Right now I need a break. I’ve been swimming in various different incarnations of Antarctica for three years (Night Shift, Australis and New Gods) and, after a particular vicious slog, all I want is to start up something new so that when I have to return to the bottom of the world I’ll be able to see with fresh eyes.

But life doesn’t run like that. Writing is work and to be a writer you sometimes have to push yourself to places you don’t want to go. I’ve just received feedback from a beta-reader on the latest incarnation of Night Shift and I have to turn right round and get back on that particular appaloosa once again. See, I promised my interested agent that I’d get my manuscript to her ‘early new year’, which I’m reliably told is before the end of February.

Not gonna happen. I mean, I could just abandon my betas and send it off now, but then what’s the point in asking for feedback if you don’t act on it? No, I want this work to be the best it possibly can be, and that means ploughing through once more; my last revision was a biggie, and I need to reassure myself that I’ve not committed any egregious crimes against rationality or miseries of melodrama.

So I’m having to pull NS back to the front and opening that file once again. Hopefully this will be a bit of a canter. And then it’ll be back onto fresh virgin writing. Somewhere in there I’ll have to get back to my sequels, and to the last tidy of Chivalry, and maybe…

They say that no piece of writing is ever finished, it’s just published. I need to get something out there, to say definitively that this is done.

But not yet. There’s still a lot of work to do before then.

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The call to adventure

I am slowly going insane. I have been beaten around the head by the continent of Antarctica for so long now that I can see nothing but white. For at least three years I have been existing in a wilderness of my own creation and now I’m beginning to feel that if I don’t get out now I’ll be trapped here forever.

It is, in other words, time to start a new project.

Ideas are not a problem. Ideas are never a problem. Ideas drop in constantly, brushing one Mandelbrot wingtip across my brow before fluttering away as if ashamed of what they might become. It’s like a fever; one moment you’re enthralled with a new vision and a wholehearted determination: I will do that next, just as soon as I’ve dug myself out of the hole I’m currently in. But then a month passes and you’re still busy on whatever it is that’s occupying your time and the fever’s abated and you start to realise what else you actually need to do before you begin this new project.

I have about half a dozen ideas – viable ideas that have had at least a modicum of serious thought – going round my head at any one time. Which I select is partly chance, partly just because it’s been with me long enough that I don’t have to do quite as much hard thinking; it’s oven-ready, just has to be popped in the warmth for a while, cozened, held close.

Of course, as soon as you actually set metaphorical pen to paper you realise that it’s nothing like ready. Now you have to create your mythos, you have to strip out the most blatant thefts and actually do some original thinking.  You have to clear out the assumptions and all the muddled, tangled threads and scribble stupid, inane notes to yourself before there’s any sort of coherent ‘story’.

But after three years trapped in the same world, it’s a delight, a relief to be actually writing again. It’s a real liberation; just a few days in and you’re already shifting neurones into place, reorganising your mental processing. To have new visions in your head, new people to dance with. And yes, this is only the very beginning; there’s a long, long road ahead of you with no clear destination in sight. There will be dead-ends and deadfalls and magic mirrors to thwart you. But that’s all part of the process. That’s the adventure.

Just as your characters are setting off on a quest – be it across an endless nameless wilderness or just through the transformations of one soul – the writer is also setting off on a journey. This is the most exciting time, before the feet start to blister and the scalp starts to bake in the legendary Desert of Slog. The time when you’re choosing your provisions, loading the pack and finally setting off on that road.

This is the best time to be a writer. The view’s fantastic. Shame about all the mountains you’ll have to cross, all the dread chasms, the Guardians of Dark and Secret Wisdom that need to be slain. But right at the beginning it’s all downhill, a magical thrill of following that stream all the way down to the sea.

Just be careful you don’t capsize. I hear they’re got piranhas the size of cows down there.

Arts & crafts

I’m not a good writer. I am, however, a pretty respectable craftsman. Allow me to explain.

Writing is seen as an art. It is art, they say, that allows one to choose the best word, to create a plot that enraptures and enthrals and to populate it with wonderful characters and to build themes and subtexts and miracles. Like a caricaturist scribbling out mocking little portraits on demand, a writer can spin wonders out of nothing.

I can’t. The more I work on my stories, the deeper I delve into the craft, the more I realise that I’m really nothing special when it comes to word-weaving. Not on the first pass. My errors are legendary, my drafts filled with mis-used words and obvious conceits and paper-thin depictions.

What I can do, however, is to go over this run-through and develop it into something worth reading. I chip away at its rough edges, clean out the flaws and fill the gaps, redecorate and encourage my characters to tell us precisely why they never got on with their fathers. This is why I consider myself as a craftsman rather than an artist.

The difference between a steel rod and a sword is a lot of hammering and a lot of heat. The blacksmith sweats at his anvil just to work the metal into its blank form. This is the first draft, a blunt weapon full of flaws. Sure, it might knock someone out if swung hard enough, but it’s hardly a reliable tool. The metal needs to go back into the furnace and then you beat, beat, beat…

After enough work you have something approximately sword-shaped, but it’s not finished yet. Now you need to test it, to weigh its balance and to make sure there’s no fundamental weakness in the metal. If there is then it’s back into the fire, maybe adding more charcoal to toughen it up or another laminate of steel if you’re pattern-welding. Even if it withstands the proving there’s still endless days of sharpening to follow, honing the blade endlessly until it’s a scalpel-sharp perfectly balanced precision instrument.

Even when the weapon is deadly there’s still room for elaboration: a fine hilt, perhaps, or scabbard. Even, for swords of a particular bent, eldritch runes to be etched into the blade. There’s always something more that can be done.

I am not a naturally talented writer. My sword-blanks are weak and unbalanced and liable to shatter in their first engagement. But what I have is a willingness and a discipline to take my rough back to the forge and beat the shit out of it, over and over and over again, until it is the best I can possible make it.

So don’t call me an artist; that’s too good for me. Maybe one day I’ll learn enough to earn that title, when I can produce an epee, a rapier or a mighty broadsword on spec; for now I’m perfectly happy to be a craftsman.

Now it’s time for me to go back to the forge. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

The importance of being critiqued

No matter how experienced you are, how much you appreciate criticism and really want to be shown all your errors, there is a part of you who wants to hear nothing but that you’ve written a good book.

My critique group are excellent. They may pull their punches in the face of your trembling lip, but that doesn’t stop them from dropping you to the canvas in a heartbeat. It’s a reciprocal arrangement so I’ve no complaints: I’m harsh too. This honesty is vital as you’ll never become a better writer unless you know where you’re going wrong. Still it leaves a mark.

On Monday I had New Gods in the ring and it got savaged. Despite the fact that I knew they were right in almost every way, it still hurts. Now I know I have to go back to the very beginning, take it apart and rebuild from scratch. Much as I enjoy writing, the last thing I ever want is more work. Because I’m lazy. And because it’s about time I got out of Antarctica and gave my tired brain a change of scenery.

More positively, this critique also proves how much I’ve learnt over the last year. I’ve not looked at New Gods for about 15 months, and it showed. In the intervening time I’ve learnt so much, have really reconsidered how I go about something as complex as a novel. Much of the criticism I got last night revolved about depth of character, the need for backstory and for better dialogue. I’ve already thought about that and am not too worried – I can do it.

I’m more concerned with problems of plot – and missed opportunities – that were pointed out to me. But I suppose all it means is that I have to think harder: sometimes you can’t just sit back and let ideas come to you; sometimes you have to put on your pith helmet, take down the old elephant gun and stalk those treacherous wee bastards.

So thank you to my group, some of whom are probably reading this. You gave me exactly what I needed. I’ll come back with a much better story as a result. Right now, though? Well, it’s a short step from criticism of one unfinished project to worry about all your output and whether you’ve got what it takes at all. Self-doubt is never that far away.

But I do this because I love it and I’ve trained myself to sit down and my desk and work. So I will get up, get back to it and produce something better than I could before. And though the self-doubt may never leave me, if I can fool others into believing I can write then maybe I can trick myself too.