A page is a playground

A page is a playground, a wonderland. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of letting the fingers roam where they will – in a non-innuendic sense, of course – and creating something new and free and unique to you.

Dust

I’ve been writing for some years now and maybe the surprise is that it’s taken me this long to realise this. Maybe it’s a consequence of writing this blog; I have a new outlet for my scrawls-in-the-dirt; I’ve freed myself to create words and to trust my voice. But I’m noticing it in my real writing too.

I’m midway through my major structural rewrite – or at least the first structural rewrite – of Oneiromancer. This involves hacking at the tangled undergrowth of words with the blunt machete of confusion. It means cutting and saving sections separately, writing new linking scenes, then shoving the first lot of words back in a totally different part of the manuscript – which of course involves considerable rewrites as dead characters come back to life, previously vigorous people have gone for a little lie down, and all that was no longer is.

It also involves writing whole new scenes. What fun! What joy! To stretch back, kick off one’s metaphorical boots and dig out the dog-eared Slippers of Creation. This is playtime. There is no pressure. There’s plenty of time to worry about whether the words are any good or whether you’re hitting precisely the right notes. You know the whole novel’s going to be reassessed later – both by yourself and, hopefully, by those mythical outside influences: writing colleagues, tutors, professional editors or, in my case, parents.

I’ve done edits like this before but this is possibly the first time I’ve felt this sense of freedom. The reason for this? I think it boils down to confidence. Somehow, over the course of the last year and without me even noticing, I seem to have found some self-assurance from somewhere. It’s not that my work has improved but that I’ve stopped caring so much about the quality. That is to say (because I can’t let such a bold statement go unqualified) that I know the quality will come. Not in this edit: this is about getting the story right. But over the course of future drafts.

So for now I am building castles in the sand. I am playing in the mud. I am waving my wand in the wrong direction (again in a non-innuendic sense. Get your mind out of the dirt, you mucky person). Some – maybe a lot – of what I’m doing will be cut, deleted, or moved. So what? Mistakes are the first step to success. Some scenes will have to be shortened; some will need to be expanded. The only thing that’s limiting me is my own impatience: at some point I want to send this manuscript out to agents; at some point I want to start a new project.

But the future will take care of itself. Right now it’s time to lie back and enjoy the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails.

“How goes the writing?”

“So how’s the writing going?”
“Good. Steady. I mean, I’ve not achieved anything. But okay, thanks. I’m still doing it.”
And here endeth the conversation.

In the real world I’m not a big one for discussing my writing. This is partly because I’m British and it feels far too much like boasting. It’s partly because, as soon as someone knows you’re a writer they’ll ask what you write and, unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, saying you’re a speculative-fiction-cum-adventure-with-a-side-order-of-crime writer is likely to induce a picture of polite blankness where a face used to be.

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly difficult to really enthuse about my own work. Maybe after a beer or two, or if I’m feeling especially comfortable in the situation, I can raise a little passion about my own work. But most of the time it’s the conversational equivalent of shuffling my feet and glancing awkwardly at the floor.

But there are a few people who know I write. Acquaintances who have somehow wheedled the information out of me or The Missus and are nice enough to want to know how I’m getting on. And the conversation is always based around a theme of “…erm.”

There are moments when you’re fired with enthusiasm. If you’re first-drafting, or just about to commit the contents of brain to paper for the first time, you can rhapsodise; you can convey your excitement, you can discuss the great sweep of the plot and try and encapsulate the theme in one rather drunken and gesticulatory paragraph of wonder.

But these are rare. These moments, as we all know, are a tiny fraction of the time spent ‘writing’. Mostly we are editing. We’re going over the same chapter, the same paragraph, for the umpteenth time. What is progress? Progress is making the novel better. But saying you re-read through a dozen pages and marked out three potential rewrites (that you’re probably unsure about anyway) does not a good anecdote make.

Similarly, how do you sell your audience with stories of cutting a scene? Any sensible person would be wondering why you wasted your time writing it in the first place, even though we all know that it’s an essential part of the process.

All of this goes some way to explain why I tend to do a lot more listening than talking when in such company. It explains why, when asked, my usual response to ‘what do you do?’ is to talk about my Paid Employment rather than my writing. It’s too hard, too uncomfortable. Unfortunately my Paid Employment status is so low that usually my beautiful wife will usually rescue the situation by explaining that I’m ‘really’ a writer. Which leads us straight back to the beginning.

I suppose it’s all good practice for when I’m rich and famous and am doing interviews about writing. And, in the meantime, there’s a lot to be said for keeping your mouth shut and your ears open.

L’espirit d’escalier

L’espirit d’escalier: A conversational remark or rejoinder that only occurs to someone after the opportunity to make it has passed. Also known as l‘espirit de l’escalier. But I think the first scans better. Literally ‘the spirit of the staircase’.

escher_stairs

I was on the bus the other day. I was reading. Neither of these things are especially noteworthy or unusual. And then I had an idea.

Now I’ve written before on ideas. Slippery, untrustworthy things that wriggle and convulse, sneer and mock. Generally they’re more trouble than they’re worth, and this one will probably turn out to be the same. Despite – or possibly because of – it seeming like a good one.

This particular idea relates to an off-the-cuff comment made my one of my beta-readers in our Oneiromancer-shakedown. To paraphrase: ‘Halfway through the novel I thought [character] was going to be a traitor.’ What I didn’t say was that I’d been toying with that very idea; if not actually making them a betrayer then trying to make the reader think they were. It was one of maybe a half-dozen ideas that I tried to seed as subplots; and, like the rest, it was dropped because the novel was already getting way out of hand length-wise.

And so I reined in my ambition. I cut out plans for a general election. I skipped the gangland elements and the peasant uprising. And, because I couldn’t work out how to do it properly, I omitted the ‘betrayal’ aspect. The story was supposed to be 100-120k: the first draft actually ended up around 140k before I trimmed it back to 133k or thereabouts.

And then I had this idea. A vision of a single scene just before the climax. A trick, an illusion, a cantrip to make the audience – and my main character – doubt everything they’d previously experienced.

Trouble is it came to me 18 months too late.

Now I’m wedded, chained, welded to the conclusion I’ve already devised. My characters have walked into their destinies. The sheer fact of existence has altered my mind, frozen my hands in their cruel deformity. The wind has changed. I’m stuck this way.

Now I have two choices. I can try and crowbar this scene in; I can try and shatter the ice and do a major rewrite, shifting my conclusion to God-knows-where. Or I can sheath this idea, add it to my mental toolbox and cannibilise it for future works. Right now I don’t which road is best.

But at least that choice is mine. One of the problems with the instant-fix of self-publishing is that work is pushed out too soon, is half-baked, phony. The staircase is too short and the apples hang too close. Would a little more time allow quality to shine through?

Or is it best to get a piece finished, out there and move on to the next as soon as possible?

The point of blogging

Blogging for Fiction Writers

I’m curious what fiction writers have found works or doesn’t work in using blogs as part of their platform. It seems far easier for nonfiction writers, especially those who focus on particular subject areas, since they can provide a lot of added value for readers of their books by blogging on their subjects. But what about fiction writers? Thanks in advance for your input!

A question posted on LinkedIn ‘Books & Readers’

 

Kindle

In the best traditions of stealing ideas from other people, the above question got me thinking. And what I was thinking was that the questioner has missed the point.

A lot of you out there are writers. A lot of you are on Twitter, or have blogs of your own, or Facebook pages. How many of you are doing it to raise your profile? To sell books? For some similar purpose?

I’m doing the same myself. No point lying: I started this blog because I was advised that a successful author needs to be on social media, to have a groundswell of interest before publication, whether self- or traditional. To have presence.

Three years in and I can confidently say that hasn’t worked. Not that it’s been a failure either: I have followers, both of this blog (hi!) and on Twitter, that I wouldn’t have had before. But I’ve hardly got the legions of regular contributors that I’d happily dreamt of when I first committed text to internet. By any objective measure it’s been a failure. So why do I keep doing it?

Simple. Because I enjoy it.

And that’s the point. Even though some weeks I struggle to find anything interesting to write about, and some weeks I don’t feel like I’m publishing really quality or insightful posts: sometimes I wish I’d chosen fortnightly updates rather than weekly. But I enjoy it. I like the challenge. I like to have fun with words. I like to think of new angles upon which to focus. It’s one reason I gave myself a broad remit (‘A Writers’ Life’, rather than ‘This Particular Novel’, say).

And I think – although I can give no evidence – that this is truly the answer to the original poster’s question. The best way to ‘build a platform’ is to find something they enjoy and keep at it. I love Twitter. I have nothing to sell or to promote save vague promises for the future, but enough people seem to like my rambly tweets that I’ve a respectable number of followers. I’d like more because ego – and because soon enough I will have something to promote – but at the moment I’m happy with my slow progress.

Similarly this blog. I enjoy doing it. It’s good practice, and when eventually I do self-publish Night Shift and start sending out Oneiromancer to agents I will have that fabled ‘platform’ upon which to fall.

And, in the meantime, I’ve been opened up to other bloggers and writers and artists and I’ve expanded my own tiny perspective into a wider community.

So, Mr Original Poster, my advice to you – should you actually want it – is to relax and have fun. The benefits may come later. But for now, lay back and enjoy the process.

And, if you’re really, really interested, here’s a link to my (considerably longer) post on book promotion.

The world of epic

It must be hard to write a trilogy. I mean seriously, how do you even begin? I’m not talking about series’ here; not a series of individual stories wound within a larger plot like Scott Lynch’s ‘Lock Lamora’ novels or even my Antarctic trilogy. I’m talking about Lord of the Rings style epicness, or Joe Abercrombie’s ‘First Law’ series.

I wrote about Joe Abercrombie’s work a few weeks ago. I had problems with it, but I stuck at it. I’m glad I did because I’m enjoying it, but there are issues. In the first book there is a character that has almost no redeeming features. Arrogant, shallow and privileged, I could see that his ‘journey’ was going to be one of learnt humility and discovering that the world didn’t exist for his benefit. But he barely changed over the course of that first (long) book.

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Now, halfway through the second, those changes are starting to occur. This might be the perfect time in terms of the story and in terms of the series as a whole – but he basically spoiled the first section. Do readers accept this? I did. There was enough about The Blade Itself to make me want to read the follow-up. But how many readers were put off by the lack of development? I don’t know if it’s an incentive or a discouragement that book one didn’t end with any sort of resolution: the novel ended so obviously mid-flow that it wasn’t like reading a full novel at all.

It may be that my puzzlement is because these epic-style stories aren’t that common, at least in my experience. The Harry Potter series doesn’t really count because – except possibly as it gears up to the finale – all the mysteries are resolved within each individual episode. There is a clear arc within each novel as Voldemort and his minions are sent packing: the villain remains a thread running through the series, but each book stands on its own.

The same applies for all crime novels that I can think of: Inspector Rebus becomes aware of a crime and solves it. He may grow, become richer and deeper and more entangled with his supporting cast on each case, but the culprit isn’t left hanging (not literally) between books. A resolution is achieved. Ditto Morse, and Brunetti, Lord Peter Wimsey &c &c

In a single book – where a protagonist encounters finds and overcomes a specific problem – we can see change. We expect change. The protagonist will be a different person at the end of the story. If that character then goes on to star in subsequent novels the inverse problem occurs: how can they change further? How can we feel the character-arc we’re used to? There comes a point where we, as readers, settle for comfort, for familiarity: the character becomes an archetype of their own and just being in their presence is enough.

I’ve always had problems with Lord of the Rings (and are these epic-style books solely limited to SFF? I struggle to think of other examples). The characters just don’t change, even across the whole six books. This is especially galling in the case of Sam Gamgee, the real hero of the series. He’s presented as the same plodding simpleton from beginning to end: even when he returns to the Shire to become mayor we’re told that he rules well. We’re not shown any wisdom or depth. Conversely Aragorn is the master-ruler from the very first meeting to the last. The only character in LotR with any depth is Borimir, and we all know how that turns out.

So, in summary: long, multi-book series = difficult. I’d be interested to know your experiences and recommendations. Do you like them, or do they leave you cold? Or have I just missed the point completely?