A punch in the gut

Punch me in the gut. Go on, hit me hard. Wind me, knock me down. Make me weep.

That’s what I expect from a novel. I want to be moved. I want to surface, gasping for breath and blinking at my surroundings. I want to feel. I want to be reminded of my humanity. I want the experience to have meaning.

Not all novels have a punch-in-the-gut moment, but many do. It usually falls either just before the climax as a driver for the protagonist’s final absolution (ie revenge) or in the climax itself at the bittersweet ‘won the war but lost what really matters’ moment. At its best it’s a leftfield blow that leaves you devastated and numb. At its worst it’s cheap melodrama. You can find good examples in Sarah Waters’ Affinity and Cole & Richards’ Dr Who: Shadow in the Glass. Bad examples probably include everything I’ve ever written.

The punch-in-the-gut is so common as to be almost ubiquitous. It’s what gives the novel resonance and depth and bind you, the reader, into the emotions of the survivors. It’s not quite the same as the plot-twist although there is a lot of overlap, and often they’re combined. And I love it.

Except I kind of don’t.

Just because something is good doesn’t mean it’s pleasurable. I had this argument with a die-hard literatus regarding McEwan’s On Chesil Beach; yes, I can admire the skills and talents and feel like I’ve gained as a person when I’ve hit a tragic ending. And it is a great book. But that doesn’t mean it’s a fun experience.

Working-class people go to the theatre to be entertained: middle-class people go to be made miserable.

So the saying (or quote; or simple homespun wisdom – I only ever heard from my Dad and was never sure of its original provenance) goes. It’s wisdom I’ve always wondered about. Because it’s not true. Is it? Was there ever such a division – when the workers would go to the music halls to be entertained whilst the prosperous would go to Shakespeare and opera to be reminded of their humanity?

I am poor but educated: although my wife roundly mocks me when I deny my middle-classity, I have never felt like I belong. And I like happy endings. Sorry. Can’t deny it. Which leads me on to the next piece of wisdom that has never seemed to quite fit in my soul:

Write the book to want to read.

I read widely. I try to get as diverse a diet as possible, make an active effort to fit ‘classics’ into my body to make it as fit, strong and flexible as possible. But I have my favourites. My cake-books: the ones I read purely for pleasure. I like wit and intelligence, and adventure and if all these can be combined with something I can learn from the experience then so much the better. It should come as no surprise, then, that I love Pratchett. I love Gaiman, especially Neverwhere. I feast on Dr Who novels, although they tend to be empty calories: the SFF equivalent of Mills & Boon.

Also cat books. I like cats, okay? Sue me.

But I don’t write like this. The books I produce are dark and fear-filled; lost little orphans with nightmares and visions no mortal mind can hold. And I don’t know why. There always has to be a punch-in-the-gut moment near the end, where either a hero dies or some revelation breaks her heart. Possibly both.

I don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m so deep in character that the fundamental tragedy of the situation needs to be felt, or is it just because I’ve been inculcated to think that this is what a novel needs to be ‘good’? Or is it just a manifestation of the darkness within my soul?

What do you think? All you writers and readers; I’d be interested to hear good or bad examples you may have come across in your literary voyaging. Do you enjoy being punched, or do you seek out comfort and warmth?

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Good money after bad

I’ve finally realised: the reason I’m struggling with Australis is because it wasn’t written by me. It was written by the person I was three years ago.

It’s a revelation. It explains so much. I remember writing the first draft, thinking how much better it was than its back-to-back-written prequel. I was wrong, although I can see why I thought that. I pushed myself, trying something new, stretching beyond my comfort zone. It took the thread of the previous book and took it to its logical conclusion. I was proud of it.

Since then I’ve worked intensively on Night Shift, written the trilogy’s closer New Gods and – with a great sigh of relief – left Antarctica for the relative warmth of summertime London with Oneiromancer. Australis has lurked with only minor tinkering until a major overhaul around 18 months ago, the details of which I’d more or less forgotten. Now I find myself reading a stranger’s work; a grim, depressed stranger who clearly thought that endless blank corridors and anonymous offices made a good setting for a psychological thriller-cum-murder mystery-cum science fiction novel.

How did I come to write this? How could I have made so many misjudgements? What am I do with it now?

Also: who am I now? As a writer, what’s changed in my life to transform the author of a plodding police procedural into a writer of pacy adventures*?

The answer, of course, is that I wrote a plodding police procedural. I wrote something that, in retrospect, I’m not happy with, and I learned from the process. I took my feedback and, whilst there was nothing immediate, no fireworks in the brain, I got better. Gradually I realised how to avoid the sins I’d committed; a mirror was held to my own crapness and I did my best not to screw my eyes tight shut.

Fundamentally I’m still the same person. My errors are still legion and doubtless I’ll have committed many egregious sins in both Oneiromancer and New Gods. I will do my best to learn from these too. Indeed, early feedback is that O’s opening chapters are confused and congested. More work. Yay for work.

In the meantime I have to decide what to do with Australis. The obvious thing is to abandon it; simply to move on and write something better. But I’m not prepared to do that.

The bad reason for this is that it’s the central part of a trilogy, and to simply bin it is to lose my middle stump. It’s a bad reason because a bad book is a bad book, and no-one will ever want to move onto the finale if they’ve been bored to tears by the previous instalment. Plus I have a reputation to consider: I don’t want to be someone who churns out potboilers for the sake of a few pennies. I want to be good. I want to write well. My ego demands it.

Another bad reason is to persist because of the investment in time I’ve put into Australis. I’ve no idea how many hours I’ve spent on it already but to go ahead just because of that is the equivalent of throwing good money after bad.

But I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep working, going to spend more precious time on Australis, for two reasons. The first is that there is a good story hiding beneath the bull and I know I can draw it out. I’m a better writer now. I can do it.

The second reason is because I want to. I need nothing more than that. I like my characters. The world still interests me. There are still things I want to say. And now I know this trilogy will be self-published I have incentive and freedom to write it the way I want it written.

It will work. It will be good. It’ll just take a little more time, that’s all.

*No-one has ever said I write pacy adventures. The self-delusion is strong with this one.

State of the nation

I don’t know about you but I’m getting confused. After a long year working on one single project, I’m now all-of-a-multitask. I figure that this might make this blog a little twisty-turny, so I thought I’d best lay out just what I’m doing and where I am.

First off: Oneiromancer. This is my urban fantasy and main line of creation right now. It’s what I’ve been blogging about for the last year, so I won’t bore you too much here. The second draft is currently with the beta-readers; I have a date set in early May for feedback, beers and tears.

After this review I’ll get back to a new draft (about which I will no doubt tell you at length as I swear and twitch uncontrollably at my keyboard) to iron out all the many and varied problems that were drilled painfully into my skull by The Crusher, The Smiling Assassin, The Highbrow Heckler and the rest of the team. Then I’ll begin to think about contemplating the possibility of going back into the submissions process.

Then there’s Night Shift. I introduced all my work in this post, which is worth a look if you’re totally flummoxed with all these titles. Night Shift is complete – the only work that I’m happy to describe as ‘finished’; that’s after it was critiqued (twice) by an agent. This is the one I’m currently working on self-publishing, having exhausted traditional lines of enquiry.

I’m – that is to say my wife, the Photoshop Queen, is – currently working on a cover. I’m hoping to be able to bring you preview images for your criticism at some point, and so I may well bring my focus to bear periodically over the coming months. But there’s little to say about it right now. I had hoped that self-publishing would provide new bounteous inspiration to share with you here, but so far I am somewhat becalmed. We shall see.

And finally we have Australis. The problem child. Night Shift’s back-to-back-written sequel, over three years ago now. This is the one that’s been giving me considerable pain in the unmentionables ever since. The middle part of a trilogy always turns out to be the most difficult, probably due to ‘psychology’ or some such nonsense.

Around 18 months ago I did a heavy rewrite of Australis, adding in new characters, softening some elements and transforming the story into more of an adventure. I’ve not looked at the damn thing since, but now I’m wading back into the great sea of editation to try and form something vaguely watertight.

So I am doing three things at once: Oneiromancer is my main project. Night Shift is bubbling under, words sorted but all the publish-y details to be arranged. And Australis is my betweentime endeavour; the one I’ll be working on when the others aren’t occupying my tiny mind. My last action was to amputate the first chapter and a half; I’ll shortly be back to try and fill in the gaps I’ve left.

And whilst I’m doing all this I’m rubbing my two remaining braincells together to devise a completely new project: on my mind is an Asterix-inspired sequel to Oneiromancer and a stand-alone YA (possibly) steampunk (possibly) inspired adventure.

Because I’m a writer. This is what I do.

Boredom? Sorry, son, no time for that round here.

Visions in the storm

“But you’ve got a vision.”

If a vision was all it took I’d be a rock star by now. All those years writing songs in my head – I had a vision. But I’m still sitting here behind my computer churning out words for a handful of people to read.

Until the software is developed that allows instant transference from brain to world an idea is not enough. Other skills are needed, be they technical (knowing how to play an instrument) or collaborative (knowing people able and willing to do the playing for you).

A story is perhaps the easiest thing to transfer from mind to reality. We are, after all, taught how to write at school. Computers are all around us. The skills required to either hand-write – because you can still pay for people to transcribe a longhand document onto word-processor – or key in a story are basic and more or less universal. Music, on the other hand, is an order of learning higher.

And so is art. This is my vexation. I have another vision: to design the perfect cover for my own work. I have the image. The idea is real, to me; real enough so I can sketch a design, a rough idea. But taking that from outline to finished project is, at present, beyond me.

These days a writer is not just a writer. They also have to be publisher, designer, accountant, publicist. Some of these skills will come easier than others – but they all take practice, application and, most of all, time: time that could be (better?) spent honing the fundamental skill of writing. I am impatient. I want to get on. I want to write. I can’t afford Photoshop, let alone apply myself to going through the tutorials form rank beginner to competent amateur. I don’t need to be a professional, but I need to create the illusion of professionalism.

A vision isn’t just important, it’s essential. Nothing can be achieved without that shining idea of a final outcome. But don’t mistake an idea for the finished product.

Vision + inertia = nothing.

Vision + graft = result.

The ruiners of bliss

Last week I explained in my usual half-assed, rough-and-ready way, my intention to self-publish. Now I need to confront my demons. I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve no experience and no talent. And I want to do it properly. In my way stand three great enemies. They must be vanquished before I can proceed. They are:

  • Ignorance
  • Impatience
  • Indolence

and they are the ruiners of bliss.

I’m not bothered about formatting. Although the word ‘Styles’ with regards to MS Word still fills me with trepidation, and though I’ve never been closer than a basilisk’s glance from Createspace or any such software, I can cope with technical demands of formatting. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, even if it means going through my manuscript paragraph by paragraph and uplifting a chunk at a time.

No, what fills me with fear is the idea of creating a cover.

I have no artistic talent. I have no skill with Photoshop or any of the other magnificent cover-generating softwares. I have ideas – some possibly even good – and I know what I want. I can see the finished cover in my mind. But how to get from a vision to a reality? I am ignorant. And I don’t want to spend months learning new skills when it feels like a distraction from my real work. Nor do I want to pay to have it done for me. It’s not so much that I resent spending money (although I do), but that I want to do it myself – at least the thrashing-out of the plan, the original outline, which someone better than me subsequently polishes up.

I am also afraid of approaching a stranger. There is a touch of the misanthrope about me. People are scary.

I am ignorant of the ways of art. I am indolent in that I don’t want to take the time to develop said skills. And I am impatient to get it done whilst I have a bit of free time and a mind focussed on the project.

I am also determined not to put out a half-assed job. There are a lot of bad covers out there. I don’t want my work to be considered in their ranks.

So what do I do? The real enemy is not the task in front of me. It is in my head. That strange combination of cluelessness and possessiveness. This is my baby. I just have no idea how to present it at its best; shit, snot and vomit-free.

I want it all. I want a great job done without taking any time to learn how to do it and without spending any money. Is that really too much to ask?