A new beginning

A few months ago I put the opening scene of Oneiromancer right here on this very blog. It was a first draft. It wasn’t very good. And that’s fine: part of the reason I posted it was because it wasn’t great. It’s part of the process – a fair reflection of the sort of shit I churn out as I find my way, as I walk that road towards – hopefully – publishability.

But that’s my rational brain talking. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about it; vulnerable, embarrassed. It wasn’t very good. Letting the great wide world see something so raw and incomplete is terrifying. Plus it’s counter-productive: I’m trying to build a following. Anyone who read that will think I’m an amateur. It will not get me a publishing deal. It will not awe people with my hard-earned skills. It will not make anyone eager to read the rest of the work.

Now I’ve completed the first draft and I’m on the rewrite. So I’ve decided to put the second draft here on my blog and to expose myself again. This is partly to do all the things I’ve just said: I want to impress. But I also thought it’d be interesting – for anyone interested in the process – for people to be able to compare and contrast the two versions. To see what I’ve kept, what I’ve cut, the ways in which the scene has developed or changed emphasis. If that’s you, the link above will hyperspeed you to the original post.

Or you could just want to read an opening salvo. In which case, read this version. It’s better. If you disagree then something’s gone badly wrong somewhere.

And please, please, please let me emphasise: this isn’t finished either. It’s closer, but two drafts are nothing. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip etc etc. Let me show the whole thing to my beta-readers first. Let me get serious, deep feedback. Only in context will we know if it works or not.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

 

*          *          *

 

“You’re ready?” Rosenkrantz asked. He held his sword by his side, handsome in his doublet and hose.

Guildenstern shivered, though the night was warm. The estate wasn’t silent – never was, not in the middle of London – but it was the quietest it would get, mid-way between the pubs closing and the rush-hour starting back up again. “Are you –”
“We’ve been through it how many times?” Rosie cut her off. “We want to make a difference, right?”

Gilly sighed and turned away. She looked over the concrete balcony at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. She twitched back her long dress, unsure, now they were actually out here, just how to go about being a vigilante.

Rosenkrantz touched her arm. “There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and streetlamps, burst into the square created by the arms of squat tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes were wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Broad-shouldered, well built with a black beanie pulled tight over his ears, he sighted the girl and made for her.

Gilly felt Rosenkrantz tense as he raised the sword again and turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What? This is what we’re here for. Vigilantes, remember?” Below the girl was sprinting for the far exit, the narrow gap between towers on the east side. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly. “She needs –”

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably. The sword remained unsheathed.

Below them the girl finally realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out a flick-knife. Street-lights reflected off the blade.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them.

Rosenkrantz was fiddling with his scabbard, rocking it back and forth. “Gil –”

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time, almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. The knife skittered across the paving stones.

The girl had backed up against one of the bare trees that seemed so out of place in this land of concrete. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until she was taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo was only now coming to the surface.

The man stepped forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against the tree. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid.

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have, the man calmly extended a foot and planted it in the woman’s neck. He pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boot. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she could move there was a crunch of cartilage and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase as the man kept his boot on the throat. It was only as they reached the harsh grey steps that he stepped back, let go of the girl-thing’s arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

The man was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“So this is vigilanteism, is it?” Rosenkrantz muttered. “Not exactly as I’d imagined. What about you?”

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”

 

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On progress

We are an impatient breed. We want results. We want success. And, no matter that we know these things come only after time and toil, we want them now. I see all the stages of editation and read-testing and weeping and re-editing – and repeat to fade – ahead of me. I still want it done. I want it done yesterday.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. Impatience drives us. It pushes us to do the work, to get this stage done so we can move onto the next task. But it can be counterproductive. Take my one experience with an agent: hearing the changes she advised me to make, determining to crack through them quickly in order to appear professional, and thus producing a shoddy piece of work that ultimately disappointed us both.

There’s a certain trend in writing – most notably NaNoWriMo and its spin-offs – to equate quantity with quality. ‘How to write a bad book quickly’. I’m not knocking it – NaNoWriMo is great for that feeling of accomplishment and out of the raw material a greater thing can be spun. Just don’t mistake means for ends. Get the words down, yes, but don’t expect a publisher to bite your arm off for the rights. Not until you’ve gone through the work again – slower, with different eyes, with deeper soul.

And anyway, what about the pleasure? What about the joy? If you’re putting so much pressure on yourself to produce then you’re running the risk of sucking the life out of the work. And then there’s the paradoxical truth: if your primary motivation is output then you court laziness: the lowest-hanging fruit becomes even more attractive. No point thinking deeply or undertaking a difficult section as your word-count will fall. You become a typist: an infinite monkey, not a writer.

It also means that these challenging sections – where actual thought is required – can give you feelings of failure as you produce less that session. Let me tell you now: you’re writing even if you’re not at a computer. As you stare out of a bus window you’re writing. You’re writing when you do the washing up. Whenever you’re alone and underemployed you’re writing.

Targets are great. Targets – deadlines, self-imposed or external – can drive you forwards, can force you to focus and to get those damn words down. But there will be days when you don’t meet them. There will be days when you have to live your life. Don’t beat yourself up on days like this. It all adds to the rich tapestry of existence – and, ultimately, that will make you a deeper person and give your writing a greater scope. Find the balance.

Most of all you need to enjoy what you do. Otherwise you’ll never produce anything at all.

One man and his dog

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A dog

What if he brought his dog?

Such a simple question. This is the sort of dangerous thought that occurs when an author’s lying in bed at night, running through her novel and thinking about tomorrow’s writing.

How would the other characters react?

Such a simple idea. A tiny, tiny change that has no real long-term consequences; is merely an in-character possibility. It doesn’t matter if the dog is there or not, certainly not in terms of long-term plottables. And yet… It’d be easy to add in, right? A few lines or two to give depth and to subtly reinforce a trait, to tell you a little more about the man and the situation and the world. So you settle at the computer and scroll back to make this one small addition…

An hour later and you’re still trying to deal with the consequences of the change. You’ve totally rewritten your scene. Other characters have been totally altered, their reactions taking you by surprise and leading you way off track. The function of the scene may remain unchanged, but the action has been ripped apart. Not only that but you’ve considerable downstream consequences to resolve.

What if I showed this scene from a different point of view?

Now you have to lose all the lovely internal contradictions that you’d created in the original draft. You’ve got to observe reactions rather than experience them. But it’s worth it, right? You got this great idea for a new perspective and it’ll all be worth it in the end.

Writing – and editing – is full of this sort of thing. Your worries and your search for perfection make you constantly question what you’ve already written. Your words aren’t set in stone: your scenes, even the big set-pieces, are mutable, improvable. But are you making things any better?

This is why I don’t trust ideas. Most of the time they’re simple pains in the backside. Any serious writer has more ‘ideas’ than he knows what to do with. The pressure on you is to choose the right ones. Because any origin has a multiple different outcomes, a multiverse of possibilities just waiting to be explored. So how do you chose? Is it worth going right through the story, ripping up your road as you go and relaying it on a totally different alignment? Buggered if I know.

Writing isn’t about ideas. Writing is about choices. Which idea? Which road? In Oneiromancer I’ve already dropped plans a sub-plot involving a general election. I’ve chosen my focus and don’t need any other complications, thank you very much. Some ideas can be saved for sequels; others will be jettisoned forever. Choices. Not easy.

For the record, I’m leaning against the dog. She’ll make an appearance later. But her presence earlier is in character and would add something plausible and potential-filled. I have made the POV change, though, adding yet another head-character to my already twisted tapestry.

As with everything else it’s a question of balance. Sometimes you need to just plough on and get the damn thing done. But inflexibility is not your friend. If, when sharing your hard-crafted words with others, they ask awkward questions and make perfect suggestions you have to at least be prepared to make these changes. Even if it means rewriting every scene in your novel. Even if it means another three months of blood, sweat and swearing.

No-one ever said writing was easy.

A question of style

I do not write here as I do in my novels. Here I indulge my taste for neologisms, for bad puns, for annoying alliteration and all those other little stylistic tics that would drive you crazy if they were to appear in a novel. I have a different voice here from the one I use to construct my stories.

Style is possibly the most difficult thing to define in writing. It’s not the words you put on the page but the way you get them down. Except… it is the words too. If you’ve ever got anything down on the page then you’ve got a style. Just not necessarily a good one.

Confused?

Well, cheer up. It’s impossible not to develop a style. Style is just a combination of several different factors and the way they interact:

• Word choice

Simple or complex? Blunt or flowery? It’s really as simple (or complex) as that.

• Word order

‘They’re not the same thing’ vs ‘The same thing they are not’. Same words, same meaning – but a different effect. One is flat and straightforward and draws no attention to itself. The other can be – depending on context – playful, arch, or just bloody annoying.

• Sentence/paragraph length

Obviously this should vary, partly to avoid monotony and also to create different effects, but you’ll find that each author has a tendency for short or long sentences. Which leads us on to…

• Punctuation

I’ve a weakness for semi-colons. Love the buggers, I do. Most of my sentences are short, but I spice things up with rambling, poetic(er) sections with clauses and sub-clauses and even brackets. Punctuation is, perhaps, the greatest definer of style, which is why I’m totally nonplussed when I meet authors who say that they’re really bad at it and don’t seem to care. To me, that’s like saying ‘I’m a bit crap but that’s no big deal’.

Style varies according to what effect you’re trying to get across. My voice in this blog is more like my natural conversational voice. This blog is, after all, meant to be fun; often, when I write this, I’m playing. I’m writing with a smile, trying to satisfy myself as much as I’m trying to enlighten or entertain you, the reader. It’s possible that this just makes me an arse, in which case congratulations! You’re saved the bother of actually meeting me.

Style is also about omission as much as it is about what you put in. Missed words, unusual syntax – they shape the feel of the read. Take that ‘Just not necessarily a good one’ from the second paragraph: you all know that was ungrammatical, a sentence fragment. But I chose (without any real thought) to omit the object. This is part of my style. I also have the habit of starting sentences with conjunctions: ‘or,’ ‘but,’ or most especially ‘and’. I’ve got the idea that this creates a sense of immediacy and urgency, and I think by and large it works. But this is something that I used to do a lot more, and still end up cutting a lot of these through successive drafts. I once defended this technique with the cry of ‘Style!’ – and I was right. But stylistic tics like this are best used sparingly. Otherwise they scream out to the reader. They scream ‘amateur.’

The good news is that you don’t have to do anything special to develop a style of your own. You’ve already been fully inculcated by the books you’ve read and are reading. You’re critique group (you have one of those, right?) will tell you without prompting where you’ve crossed the line into arseishness. Style simply comes from writing: from getting the words down on page, regularly and in abundance. You need to make mistakes.

I’m desperately trying to avoid the old saw ‘you need to know the rules in order to break them’. It’s not quite true; you can sidestep the process and trust to instinct, although that’s a high-risk strategy – you may be called out at any moment. You certainly don’t need to read grammar-primers – I’ve read them for you, and I couldn’t make much of them. But it helps. The better you understand convention the easier it is to manipulate.

Certainly don’t fall into the trap of taking only one source for your inspiration. A mentor is a great thing. We all have our literary idols. But – and I can say this on any subject – the only way to round your style is to read as widely as possible and get as many different feedback-sources as you can.

And never trust a man who writes one-sentence paragraphs.