Can you do it better?

“Can you do it better?”

These words, spoken by my old technology teacher to a schoolchum, have always stuck with me.

The context was of someone accused of copying, of taking someone else’s idea for his own. The response was simple: ideas are uncopyable. The details – the design, the manufacture – they’re your own. But the idea is free and universal.

There’s a terrific tendency to avoid doing anything that has ‘been done before’, but the more I read and the more I write the more I realise that there is nothing new under the sun. It’s all about the way the work is done, what you – and only you – can bring to the party. And this doesn’t matter. Just because you’ve heard of Ian Fleming and John le Carre doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a spy novel.

My current work-in-progress, Oneiromancer, is heavily influenced by a role-playing game I played over a decade ago. One of the key tasks I had to do when I began to write was to sort out my own mythos from that of the game. I’ve also tried to immerse myself in urban fantasy, the closest genre to my novel. And the more I read, the more I realise that my ‘unique’ ideas have already been done and I have nothing new to say.

But no-one’s written it like I’m doing. I have my own voice and my own preoccupations – what is, in writing terms, known as ‘theme’. You can try it if you like: rewrite your favourite novel. Just take the story and try and replicate it. I can promise you that you won’t keep on track for long. Soon the work you’re doing will become yours as you become distracted by the roads not taken, by inserting your own voice between the folds.

There is no law against stealing an idea. Words, yes – too many people have been caught out with plagiarism. But ideas are free. The only question that matters is whether you can do it better.

That’s not to say that the actual book I’m producing will be up there with Neil Gaiman or Ben Aaronovitch or Jim Butcher. But it won’t be a copy of those authors either. You cherry-pick, consciously or subconsciously. You take the bits you like and ignore the others. So you can have vampires that sparkle in sunlight if it suits your purposes.

I hate magic. Fantasy magic makes no sense to me: it too often seems to have no rules. It becomes a get-out clause for authors, rather like Q’s gadgets in the Bond series (and, incidentally, am I the only person who thinks Game of Thrones would be better without dragons?). But that there is a force that can be manipulated by those who know: that I can accept. A force that obeys the rules of physics – or maybe bends them just a touch. I didn’t invent magic but I am taking the concept and putting new structures upon it, just like every author who’s ever written about the fantastical. No-one has copyright on the Minotaur.

So the next time someone reads your book and says “Well that’s been done before,” that’s fine. Maybe you need to bury the source a little deeper – after all, a series of novels about a teenage wizard in a quintessentially British boarding-school may come across more like satire than inspiration. But the important thing is to be able to say that maybe there’s a passing resemblance, but no-one can write a story in that way, with those words.

Give yourself permission to say “Maybe it’s similar. But mine’s better.”

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Is it possible to edit your own work?

It is amazing how quickly a discussion can become an argument.

A few days ago I made the mistake of commenting on an internet article. I know, I know – I should have thought. But it was harmless enough – what one piece of advice would you give to somebody considering self-publishing. My tuppen’orth was to wait and write another novel first. My mistake was to fail to check the box marked ‘don’t email me when anyone replies’. For the last half-week I have been spammed into oblivion. If anyone’s been looking for me I’ve been pinned beneath my inbox, struggling for breath.

Anyway, the issue that really sparked dissent, dissolution and disaster was whether an external editor is essential or if a writer can successfully proof-read their own work. Rather than wading into internet hell I thought I’d examine the question at more length here.

Let’s start at the beginning. There is more than one type of editing, and the terms are not used equally by all. Editing, basically, is a way of finding and killing errors; but what is an error? At one end of the scale we have typos, mistaken word-choices, confusing sentences and grammar-based boo-boos. At the other we have plot-arcs, roads not travelled, possibilities unexplored. If you are ever considering paying for an editing service then you need to know just what you’re paying for – and what you’ll get out of it at the end.

But do you have to pay? Surely it’s possible to do this on your own. After all, who knows what you’re trying to achieve better than yourself?

Well, yes – but that’s kinda the problem.

There are techniques for self-editing. Reading the story aloud is a good one because the brain works slightly differently when reading. It helps highlight errors of rhythm, for finding sentences that lack that magical sense of flow, and will aid the seek-and-destroy of those pesky typos. You can also record yourself and – hey presto – instant audiobook.

Another technique that I often come across is to read your work backwards. Doing this removes your sense of story and allows you – again – to find typos that you’ve skimmed over on multiple drafts.

But these methods, and others, are really only focussed on finding small errors: on improving the actual writing without addressing the meat of the story. And this is where an external reader is not only useful but – dare I say – essential.

Believe me when I tell you that you, the writer, are in the worst possible position to view your novel objectively. You’ve been living with that story, with its characters, for months, for years. You’re too close. It’s remarkable – in Night Shift I had my protagonist behaving totally out of character (breaking into a room when he had no real cause) – and I never realised that it was wrong. That’s only one example; I could give you many more. The human brain is unsurpassed in its ability to overlook the bleedin’ obvious.

So: it is possible to successfully proofread your own work. But structural changes, plot-holes and issues of character – for those you need an external opinion.

The internet is littered with editorial services and literary consultancies. You can pay… I don’t know, just about anything. If you’re considering going down this route, start off by thinking just what sort of edit you’re after and what you’re going to get for your money. But what hope for the rest of us? Those who can’t afford or are otherwise reluctant to shell out a nice wadge of cash?

The best advice I can give to you is to join up with other writers to form a mutual critique group. I’ve written on this before – cast your eyes over this. But you can go further. Or less far. There are loads of internet corners for writers. If you can’t afford professional editing then my advice is to do a manuscript exchange with other people in your position. Find a forum and ask. It’s not that hard. All it costs is the time it takes to read (and comment on) someone else’s work.

But – caveat! – the best editors are people you know. My parents, for example, proof-read my early work. They are excellent – truly excellent – at sniffing out poor writing, typos and errors. They are less good at pointing out plot-holes and deeper issues. Once you know someone’s proclivities you can take them into account and use different readers for different functions. Always get more than one opinion.

This is going on a bit. I could write a lot more. But, to summarise…

Is it possible to edit your own work? Yes, if your aim is to kill all technical errors. But if you want to make your story as good a it can possibly be then you need an outside perspective. Whether that’s paid for or you go a-huntin’ for freebies is up to you.

White blank page

Some mornings you just have nothing to write. The words have deserted you. The muse has not only flown, but has ransacked your house and taken your passport, bank-card and – if you’re lucky – the children too. You are empty and devoid of any creative thoughts.

It’s not as if writing is a profitable and investment-rich opportunity. The old truths are crumbling. The publishing industry knows no more than you, and, although more people than ever are reading, no single author is picking more than pennies.

You’re a long, long way even from that stage anyway. You’ve still got your first draft to complete, and you’re old enough and bitter and wary enough to know that you’re going to get savaged, mauled and eviscerated by your test-readers before it’s anything like ready to earn those pennies.

You know all this and you do it anyway.

It’s on mornings like this that writing becomes a job and not a calling. This is what separates the successful from the aspirants. The ability to knuckle down and do the job – because it is a job – when the passion’s lacking, when the world is oppressing and cold and fragile.

But mornings like this – I do wonder why I’m wasting my time on something with such little prospect of reward. When I know I have to write but can’t find anything but blankness inside. I think of all the other things I could be doing. I think of taking the morning off. I think of moving house, moving country – of getting out, one way or another.

But then I fire up my manuscript, see where I’ve got to in my novel – and I damn well go back to work.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do. Good days, bad days – they don’t matter. What matters is to suck it up and do it anyway.

Someone stick the kettle on. This is going to take a little time.

Mileposts

I can just – just – see the downward slope ahead of me.

So you’ve got to that difficultest of sections: the one between between the introduction and the climax, traditionally known as ‘the story’. You’ve brought your characters into play and given them some life, and now you’ve got to manipulate them into wending whence you will. It’s not always easy: those pesky buggers will slither in any direction other than the one you need, are notoriously lazy and would rather sit and sulk in their rooms than go out and combat evil.

It’s not so bad if you get to this point having drawn up a clear plan, with every scene and stage already sketched out. But you’ll still find that your preconceptions sometimes sit like a yoke around your character’s neck and must be modified. Or the background you’ve painstakingly created has unexpected consequences and new opportunities suddenly open like a cartoon trapdoor beneath you.

For most of us, entering the start of the story proper is akin to emerging from a narrow defile and seeing a great vista open up before you; a wondrous, fertile plain with all manner of magnificent sights and opportunities. Now you have to steer a course between them without repetition, deviation or tearing up the tracks of logic that you’ve been steadily laying.

I don’t know about you, but I usually know roughly how long a books going to be before I start it. There’s a shape to the gilded story-ball that is your idea; you have a vague idea whether you’re dealing with something short or long, or abstract or precise, or multi-layered or linear. This instinctive knowledge tells you roughly where you are when you’re writing: have you reached the Inciting Incident (which traditionally brings the introduction to the end) yet? How about your mid-point crisis? Your quiet-before-the-storm?

This is, I should add, just one way of thinking about the novel, and it’s really not essential to know it all – especially in your first draft. But I’m finding it useful to have these vague mileposts in my mind’s map’s eye as I proceed with Oneiromancer. I’m up around the 50,000 mark, and though that number will change (I have a lot of cutting to do), the sense of where I am in the story is solid. I’m just approaching the central crisis, the crux that divides the novel in two. As it feels like the novel will be fall into the 100-120k zone, this is pretty much bang on target.

I should say that I’ve reached this point almost be accident: by pinning my various balls of yarn up through the introduction and rolling them out aimless into the future. I now find that these leads can be collected, pinned, then cast forwards again towards the end.

Now I’m still looking out at that magnificent vista, that endless plain – only this time I’ve found the geocache tucked away behind some convenient bushes. There’s a machete, binoculars and some field-rations. No map, not at this point – but it now feels like I’m going downhill again. Three fixed points: lots of twists and turns to get there, but I’ve now anchored three fixed points on my path. They will take me to the end.

Yes, It’s F**king Political

As Skunk Anansie told us, years ago, Yes, It’s Fucking Political. Of course it is. Everything’s political, when you get right down to it. We’re readers, we’re writers; for all we might like to think that we’re above the mundanities of the dirty world, we can’t escape it. You think Dickens wasn’t political? How about Shakespeare? Arthur Miller? And you’re into politics too.

At the moment it seems that there is a move – read ‘giant lurch’ – towards the right-wing in writing, and especially in science-fiction. Actually, that’s almost certainly not true; these voices have always been there, as have an equivalent bunch of Lefties. But circumstances have now propelled a small minority of extremists into the limelight. Check out this little slice of delight, for example; and we’ve barely just got over the Rabid Puppies contretemps.

Let me just go on record and say that I detest these people, and most especially their loathsome figurehead Vox Day*. I‘m not here to talk about them specifically; nor am I going to rehash old arguments. I want to talk about the nature of writing – and indeed, life – and SF in particular.

All writing is political. Hell, the clothes you wear, the way you talk – it’s all political. Mostly it’s something you never think about – you can perfectly enjoy the Shopaholic books without ever considering the consumer society in which the characters operate. Some writers are more overt than others – Orwell, of course, is an obvious example, and I could point at the doyenne of American libertarianism, Ayn Rand.

But no story exists in a vacuum. There are underlying concepts, a framework, behind every novel. Even historical fiction has to make a choice between presenting things we now find repellent – such as the treatment of women or slaves or rampant antisemitism – with a modern eye or in the most accurate light of the time. This is a political decision, although not necessarily done for political purposes.

But science-fiction is different. Everything science-fiction is political, almost by definition. This is because we either have to create a whole new world ourselves, or because our stories are born of that classic old question: what if..? Thus are born some of the greatest writers, and stories, in the canon. Asimov and Dick are the classic examples; if you’re after a more modern examples I’d point to the great Terry Pratchett – whose Discworld series is all about the real, modern world – and Adam Roberts, who has taken as themes religious extremism, communications and animal rights in his writing.

It’s inherent in science fiction – no, not all, but some – to look into ones fears, to find trends in the modern world and extrapolate them into the future. Now, I don’t believe in censorship; nothing should be off-limits. Science-fiction is not about hiding – it is about exploring, and the most beautiful explorations are those of the human condition. A novel on the rise of Islam, or the ‘spread’ of homosexuality, or of Liberal hand-wringing (a la Mr Covington in one of the above links) can have its place.

If it’s done well, and sensitively, and explores the issues rather than just demonising those the author finds distasteful.

It’s not just the Right that politicises. The Sad Puppies – the ‘political wing’ of the more extreme Rabids – originally set out to protest at a perceived bias towards the Left in the Hugo awards and in publishing in general. More personally, I am writing my new novel, Oneiromancer, with a left-wing slant: nothing overt, but with an underlying theme of society in peril from a biased media.

This (I hope) does not do my own work justice. I write about people first and foremost, with a bloody good story laid upon them. That, at least, is the plan. But I am a product of my upbringing, my (continuing) education and my environment – just as you are too. There’s nothing wrong with this.

But it’s something we should be aware of. It’s perfectly fine to explore the big issues – in fact, it’s a necessity for the good of mankind – but you ignore the consequences, the way others with perceive your work, at your peril.

Because yes, it’s fucking political.

Everything’s political.

And if you’re writing about white supremicism, or religious extremism, then you must know how the work will be taken. You must know that those who aren’t your race or religion are exactly the same as you, with their own hopes, fears, and prejudices. And you must acknowledge this in your work.

Otherwise you might be accused of foaming a little around the chops.

*This is a link to his Wikipedia page. I would never, ever link to his blog as every hit gives him the oxygen of publicity. I’m not too happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen. Besides, too long spent in his electronic company leaves me needing a good wash and, possibly, a lobotomy.