A decision

Oneiromancer is with my beta-readers. I am entering the long, dark, tea-time of the soul and the only answer is more work. After the adrenaline rush of finishing a draft I just want to bury myself in a new project – at least until the feedback comes straggling in and I’m enveloped in another round of editation.

So it’s time to self-publish.

I still like the idea of going through the traditional agented route. I write with the hope of finding a backer who’ll take me onto bookshop shelves. The good thing is that it’s becoming more and common for authors to take both paths; self- and traditional publishing are complimentary, not competitive.

The truth is that I don’t have the time or the energy to push my back-catalogue any more. This is work I believe in, that I’ve spent countless hours on. So I’m faced with a choice: I can put those novels into the bottom drawer and forget about them, or I can try and push them out myself.

I’m not doing this for riches – I’m not so naïve – or for acclaim; I know how few connections I have and – perhaps more to the point – I know how lazy I am, how easily distracted. I’m not planning a great marketing campaign or to spend my weekends shivering ignored at car-boot sales. I’m not even planning on getting hard copies – ebooks are my way forwards, even though it seems like sales have peaked. My sense of timing is, as ever, impeccable.

But I want to get my work into the public domain. I want to call it finished. I want to fill my Twitter-feed with rampant self-promotion and egomaniacal desperation and delusion. And I want to know how it’s done; to go through the process of cover design and formatting and all the other things that I know only from the outside.

And I want to do it without spending any money.

It will be an adventure. It will be a challenge. It will be an experience. And even if I fail, even if I decide it’s all too much for me and I can’t do it to a sufficient standard for it to be worth doing at all, I will at least know that what I’ve been saying on this blog – all my discussions and criticism and analysis – has been based on ignorance and idiocy.

Or I can learn new skills; develop myself and (possibly) my brand, and have new things to talk about on this blog. I can confirm or confront my preconceptions and be able to talk authoritatively about things I’ve so far only guessed at. Either way it will be worthwhile.

And you get to join me through the process. Aren’t you the lucky ones?

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Revenge of the Betas

Oneiromancer Draft 2 is finished. It is now with my reading team; in a month or so we will convene and I’ll learn of all the ways in which I have failed. Then it’ll be back to the Editorium with me to fix all my myriad mistakes.

Some months ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter to a theoretical beta-reader: now it’s time again for me to think about what I actually want to gain from the experience and how to go about asking for it. Because there is good criticism and there’s bad criticism and it’s possible for you, the author, to make sure you get the one you’re after.

These are the questions I’m asking myself. Unfortunately the human brain (mine, at least) isn’t designed to see these things in one’s own work. So I’m relying on others to filter these things for me. I’m not planning on sending this list out to my chums ahead of review/evisceration because I don’t want to lead their thoughts. But I will be taking this list with me, as a reminder to myself of what I’m trying to learn.

So:

  • Structure:
    • Does the novel start in the right place/in the right way?
    • Are there any areas where the story drags? Do any scenes seem too slow, or would any benefit from being drawn further out?
    • Does the work take too long to get going?
    • Should any scenes be cut?
    • Should any scenes be added?
    • Are the characters introduced coherently?
    • Does the ending satisfy?
  • Mythos:
    • This is a fantasy and so a certain amount of world-building is involved. Is there too much? Or too little?
    • Is it communicated in the right way? Too fast, too slow, too obscure or too spoon-fed?
    • Is my mythos cohesive and believable?
    • Is there anything that you didn’t understand/makes no sense?
    • Have I contradicted myself at any point?
  • Character:
    • Backstory: too much? Too little?
    • Do the characters act out of character at all? Are their motives clear?
    • Are the characters sufficiently distinct? Do they have clear – and not too annoying – voices?
  • Plot:
    • Are there any points where you wondered why my cast acted as they did?
    • Were there any moments where you were screaming ‘No! No, that’s dumb! Why not just…?”
    • Were all actions clearly caused by previous events and not introduced by our old friend Ms Deus Ex?
    • Was there, in fact, a coherent plot?
    • Were all the threads resolved?

It’s especially important to get this sort of feedback because I was essentially making things up as I went along. You come up with one idea and then, a dozen chapters later, you realised the consequences are much greater than you thought. “Well if she can create a sword out of thick air, why can’t she just sever this Gordian knot with a thought?” It’s amazing what you can miss.

I’m not (that) interested in typos, grammatical errors, dialogue and even basic quality of writing. Not at this stage. I’m going to have to rework this piece enough times: each draft will improve the actual writing. At this stage I’m much more concerned with whether the world I’ve built actually works.

It’s always worth asking yourself what you want to find through criticism. Secretly I think we all want to be told that we’re wonderful, that we’ve written something unique for the ages. But even secretly-er we all have anxieties about what we’ve done. The only way to come out with a quality product is to face these fears head on, admit your uncertainties and Get Help. That’s what I’m trying to do here. Some of the points above are generic: we’re all worried about character; any of us might have let a plot-thread hang loose.

Some, however, are specific to this particular work. For me it’s the particular rules of the world – the laws of magic, if you’ll permit me such an odious phrase. So when the group meets and I’m confronted with my shortcomings I’ll know to prick up my ears whenever someone mentions what to me are the underlying fundamentals of my world’s backstory. And so on.

That, at least is the plan. But, as we all know, no plans ever survive contact with the enemy.

Today’s delusion

I’ve just written the best book ever. No, really, I have. It combines depth with a rip-roaring story. It’s an adventure and a psychological study and it’s desperate and it’s terrifying. It’ll grip you for days. Unputdownable. Devastating.

This is a lie. I’m not sure in what way it’s a lie, but I know it’s not true. I’ve finished a draft and I know it’ll be filled with errors. Huge, great, monstrous mistakes that’ll have any civilised reader reaching for the red pen with sonic-boom generating alacrity.

I’m not an idiot. A dreamer, yes, but not an idiot. I want to write well. And I know that in five year’s time I’ll be hideously embarrassed by what I’ve done. It’s painful to think that I sent my first novel out to publishers and agents; it was so bad, or at least so not good enough, that it’s a wonder nobody advised me to get a second day job so I’d have no more time to write. But right now I’m in love. I’m infatuated. Every blemish is beauty; every imperfection a charm. As if I’ve learnt nothing at all.

It’s impossible to be objective about the work you’ve just written. I’ve scrawled my way through seven novels and after each of them I thought I had a contender. This’ll be the one to break me, I thought; this is my masterpiece. I’ll make my name. I’ve felt this after every single draft, no matter how I’ve known that there’s still much work to do. Every time I’ve been wrong.

So what’s today’s delusion? Are my characters cruel clichés? Is my dialogue parade-ground parody? Is my plot as obvious as an elephant in a fishtank? Or will it be a combination of evils that just add up to a sense of ‘bleuch’-ness. I don’t know. I can’t see my errors. It’s too fresh, too real.

I’m proud of what I’ve done. I’m learning. I can see all the mistakes I made in previous novels – wince-making, agonising torments – and I’ve tried to avoid them. But there’s always a new way to grow. Always a skill to improve, a new craft to master. I just can’t see what it is right now. I want to believe. It’s so clear, so beautiful.

It’s a good job I know people willing to break my heart.

The Frankenstein pass

What the hell are scenes for anyway? To move the story along, natch. But reality moves in tiny, tiny movements: you can’t tell the audience every little single thing. You can’t have the protagonist wondering whether she should put the bins out now or wait until morning. Not unless that’s crucial to the story. ‘Showing not telling’ is great. But sometimes you have to cover things in absentia. Otherwise you’re cast immediately into snoozeville.

When you’re first-drafting you’re finding your way. You’re marking the path. Sometimes you need to write scenes of blather just so you know what your characters are thinking: to work the background, the backstory. Second draft is, in large part, getting rid of these sections and condensing the novel to make it grip and flow and to carry the readers along on a tide of thrill.

But knowing which scenes to lose and which to keep is a bugger. You wrote those sections because things are happening. Boring things, maybe, but things that, to some extent at least, matter. That foreshadow later events. That explain things. That get inside your character’s heads. How do you know what matters and what doesn’t?

Last session I cut a scene that I decided was better shown offscreen: the arrest of a minor character. But later on I need to have him interviewed by the police. It’s a bit of a jump to have a previously free character suddenly appear in a cell. I can’t quite square it. Should I put the scene back in? I also want to trim down the interrogation itself. But all these cuts threaten to destroy rationality: how much of a leap will my audience be prepared to swallow? How much explanation will ruin the flow?

A novel is not a static thing. It grows, it shrinks, it grows again. At the moment – partly because I have this artificial idea of how long I want the damn thing to be – I’m working on trimming away the fat. I envisaged the novel at around 115k; the first draft weighed in over 140k. So the scissors are out. But I have a feeling that my next draft, as yet unimagined, will be mostly addition. Story comes first. Description – of both location and emotion – is most likely going to be the next big thing for me. Eventually I’ll find my happy place: a lean, taut core with enough depth to raise the damn thing above the pulp potboilers and the penny dreadfuls that give genre a bad name.

Anyway, word count is artificial. A story should to be as long as it needs to be. I worry that by fighting to get down to an acceptable level (and what does that mean anyway?) I’m sacrificing quality.

Writing is a balancing act. It’s about choices – hard, painful choices, just like the ones your characters are making. The answer, of course, is to find a proper critique group and you let your word-baby be tamed by wider perceptions. You need to have the opinions of those who haven’t lived through your anxieties, who are seeing the work fresh and can spot waffle at a hundred paces. The best thing you can do as a writer is to allow yourself to get it wrong and to accept that you’re never going to produce a work of genius without these angels in human form. Of course what you’ve done is precious to you, but you can’t allow yourself to hold it too tightly. Otherwise you’ll smother your work and it’ll never grow hale and healthy.

In the meantime I struggle with notes and knives, with complexity and continuity. I will not produce a polished, publishable product on this draft. But I’m getting closer. This is my Frankenstein pass. With a little surgery my corpse may yet become an Adonis.