On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

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Music and lyrics

Music books 2

Last time out I wrote a little about a new project I have fermenting in the deepest recesses of the mind. This novel may or may not get written but I thought it might be interesting to share from whence the idea came.

Picture the scene: I am driving back to my old house to crack on with the let-me-save-some-deposit cleaning. I am nearing the end of a two-hour spell behind the wheel. I have our old favourite radio station on: a steady diet of solid rock, anthems all the way. I may be wearing sunglasses. Don’t hold that against me.

A song comes on. It’s not one I particularly like and I’m not particularly interested; traffic is heavy and there are temporary speed restrictions. A line of lyrics cross my ear and creep up on my higher consciousness. I can’t remember what it is now (I could check but I don’t want to find it was entirely different to what I imagined it to be; I’m happy being ignorant) but it gave me two characters: a woman who does business in bars and the man who pretends to be her boyfriend so she won’t get hassled.*

I don’t know what type of business this woman would be transacting but I suspect something illicit. The song ends. I arrive at my destination. I get to work and turn over possibilities. I’m in no rush: I’ve plenty of other writing to get on with.

And then I bring in another song. Die Trying is about migration: the mix of hope that one day you’ll find a safe harbour and the despair that leads you to make increasingly risky decisions; so you ‘fall right through the world and disappear.’

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From the graphic novel ‘Winter’ by Matt Huynh: it seems I’m not the only person inspired by Die Trying

This is a story I want to write.

So let’s push those ideas together: an immigrant couple (not necessarily romantic) who are grifting a way out of the camps and the corruption they meet on both sides of the fence.

This is how I come up with stories. I mishear. I see an ill-considered line – of lyrics, of verse, of fiction – and wonder about what it really means. I see a glimmer in the dirt and stoop for a closer look. Or perhaps I see a dullness in the diamond-pile and feel compelled to take my magnifying glass to it.

The world is full of writing prompts. Sometimes they need to be hunted, trapped and tamed. Sometimes all you have to do is sit back and let them come to you.

My previous (still unwritten) idea came from playing Civilisation: Beyond Earth, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and musing about gestalt consciousnesses and the next stages of human development.

Most ideas come to nothing. Most days I’m not receptive enough – too tired, too wired, too monomaniac for this chickenscratch assemblage.

But every discarded fancy takes me closer to finding a pattern that fits, that intrigues enough to make it worth the effort into transforming inspiration into a plot. What I come up with will bear almost no relation to the finished product. That’s just the nature of art.

And it means there’ll be a lot more discarded ideas to rearrange, to break down and build up again, the next time I catch my hunchback reflection in the carnival mirrors of my dreams.

And my dreams are always shaped by music.

 

*Oh go on then. It’s Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis. I’m not entirely sure what I heard to twist my mind in that particular way; the whole point of music (and, indeed, all art) is that we all take something different from it.

Progress uncertain

In a vague attempt to make myself a) employable and b) to help myself as a self-employed writer/editor I have been doing a course in business skills over the last fortnight. This means there has been precious little time for actual writing, something that shivers the very soul within my skin.

It also means I don’t have much to say right now, unless you want me to take you through the intricacies of invoicing.

So: please allow me to update you on what I’m currently working on and what lies in my immediate future in lieu of more interesting words.

Maze

  • Night Shift

As you all know, NS is scheduled for publication on November 6th. I’ve recently completed my copyedits and the manuscript is back with the publishers who are, I hope, busy doing publish-y things to it. Fear not, good people – I shall keep you posted whether you want to learn more or not.

  • The Problem Child

The Novel Formerly Known As Australis was half-rewritten before I both moved house and was swamped by edits and learning. But as soon as I get some clear water I’ll be coming back to this: it’s the sequel to Night Shift and I want to give my publishers a decent novel to make a decision on. More specifically I need to go back to take my seventeenth stab at an open as the damn thing still isn’t co-operating

  • Book Three

The last in the trilogy is way down my list of priorities but it is in there somewhere. And yes, it does have a name. I just can’t remember what it is

  • Oneiromancer

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. The novel is completed and polished and – I think – is pretty good. There’s just one problem: two characters need to be replaced. I just don’t quite know how to go about it – the structure is based around them and I can’t quite see how to sub them out without the whole novel collapsing into randomness. The answer might be to embrace chaos, but I’m not quite there yet. I am mulling

  • The New Thing

I don’t actually do much new writing. Most of my time is taken up with rewriting and tinkeration. But I am moulding a new project in the deepest recesses of my worst nightmares: a concept that may or may not involve refugees, corruption, journalism and a heist. This may be the last anyone ever hears of it, but at the moment it’s something I’m throwing ideas at to see if anything sticks

Carrington Labyrinth

Leonora Carrington: Labyrinth

And that’s it, apart from the prospect of a new world of (part-time) paid employment and an editing job I’m grinding my way through in the background. Which reminds me, I must make a push to get new work in: proofreading, far more so than creative writing, is what will pay the bills.

Oh, and I’ve just found I passed my exam. I am officially skilled in business, having achieved a rating of Competent. Go me.

The proofreader addresses his audience

After spending the last few weeks lamenting copy-edits I now find the boot on the other side of my face. Yes, fresh from weeping hot tears of shame at my own inadequacies, I’m now in eviscerating-other-people’s-work mode. And it’s… not nice. It’s not fun, tearing apart something someone has laboured over, has spent hours, days, months reaching into their very souls and pouring it onto the page.

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So I’ve written a letter. It’s a letter I can never send, but I want to share it with you, my friends, to try and explain how I feel when I’m in editor-mode. Hope you find it interesting.

Dear Writer

Let’s not beat around the bush: there’s a lot of red ink on your manuscript. I’m sorry about that. It’s my job to find fault and to let things slide would help no-one. The disappointment would still come, it’d just be delayed. Kudos to you for wanting to meet things face-on. You’ve dodged the easy option and I respect that.

I feel that I should say that I’m not perfect. I’ve got no secret wisdom or knowledge – the changes I’ve made are based on my understanding of good writing, good grammar and good story. I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’ve heard enough stories of editors completely missing the point with their critique to know that editing is subjective. This subjectivity might affect the placement of a single comma or it might concern the plot as a whole.

It’s down to you, ultimately, to decide whether to take my advice or not. I won’t judge you either way.

I want to help you. I want you to improve as a writer. Perhaps my biggest single fear is not that you’ll think me an idiot, or that you’ve wasted your money, but that I might scare you off writing. My criticisms aren’t meant to depress or to discourage but to make your work better and, if possible, to help you become a better writer.

Editors will always tell you that they’re judging your work, not your worth as a person. That’s true to some extent but let’s be honest here: sometimes it’s hard to separate the words from the wordsmith.

This isn’t about whether or not your work is at a publishable standard. I actually quite enjoy getting a piece with basic errors of grammar or point-of-view or chronology: I can help with those and I find I like acting as a teacher.

I do, however, come to some conclusions based on the content. If you repeatedly extol the virtues of a particular diet or philosophy I may conclude that this comes from the author, not the character. If all your heroes are blond and blue-eyed I won’t assume you’re a Nazi but I will wonder if you’ve lived a particularly sheltered life. And yes, sometimes this makes me angry – but only in my quiet, inside-of-my-own-head way.

I also know just how easy it is to suggest something that you really didn’t mean. Quite apart from my own failures in writing I’ve picked people up, for example, for intimating that people were only poor because they were lazy. The author didn’t mean it, but that’s how it came across. It’s my job to find this sort of error; everyone slips up sometimes.

It’s true that sometimes I get frustrated when I see the same errors over again and yes, sometimes I’m bewildered to the point of getting ‘creative’ in my marginal notes. But that’s my weakness (as a person and as an editor), not yours.

So please take this manuscript back with my thanks. I’m honoured that you’ve trusted me with something you know is imperfect and want to make better. You’ve shown me great trust and I take it seriously. See all my corrections (which I reiterate are suggestions, not instructions) as a sign of sincerity, not a desire to hurt.

You have done something unique and worthy and, whilst I think it could be better, you should feel proud of yourself. You have achieved. You’ve not just sat there dreaming; you’ve made the effort. More than that, you’ve had the courage to show your work – to me, and to others. That’s worth something.
Look at it this way: the more corrections I’ve found the more worthwhile your expenditure has been.

I wish you happy redrafting

The Freelancer

On copy-edits

Copyediting 2

I have survived. I live to tell the tale. And what a tale it is – a tale of high-jinx, of derring-do and of rescuing suspiciously busty maidens from suspiciously inconvenient places.

I am, of course, lying. It is a tale of sitting in front of the computer and using Twitter to distract myself from all the thinking.

Here are a few little reflections on the copy-editing process, but before we can dive straight in I should clarify: there were three people involved in the process. I was one, the editor was the second and the copyeditor the third.

The editor works for the publisher and is responsible for overseeing the word-side of my novel (and, I think, that of the rest of the imprint). The copyeditor is a freelancer who was sent my manuscript to seek out errors great and small. I never had any contact with the CE; it all went through the editor. And here is what I now know:

  • There are many types of error:
    • Typos
    • Grammatical errors or mistakes of clarity (who’s talking? Does this modifier refer to this or that or the other?)
    • Continuity errors
    • Errors of taste or discretion
    • Bad writing
  • Typos happne. They can be shrugged aside. So can grammatical errors (you were tired at the time; it was late and that thing you like was about to happen – you know, the one that leaves you all distracted). Continuity errors are worse as they actually have to go back through the MS to find the original reference and decide which to change. Occasionally you’ll have to think and no-one wants that
  • But these are nothing on matters of taste and discretion. See this soul-tearing post from a few weeks back as evidence. Actually, don’t. I’d rather forget the whole sorry saga, thank you. Why’d you have to bring it up anyway?
  • Bad writing is the worst, though. You’ve been through however many edits; you’ve got it past numerous gatekeepers and you did it with this piece of shit? Rereading your own work, especially in this forensic detail, often makes it impossible to see what’s actually good about your work
  • And this leads to more doom: do you try and improve your manuscript? Will you just be annoying your editor by making last-minute, unnecessary changes? If the copyeditor didn’t comment on a particular sentence, is it not just irritating to dismantle it and reinsert upside-down?
  • You need a copyeditor to assess your copyedits
stet

A Google image search failed to identify an artist for this, but you can get it on a mug here; the designer’s listed as Shonda Smith

  • Copyeditors are great: they spot things you’ve never even begun to think about considering. But they’re not perfect. They have their own oddities and prejudices. Mine (whose name I don’t know) seems to have a weird thing about commas. They’ll insert them where I’m damn sure they’re not necessary
  • My biggest fear is that I’ll disappoint my editor. This is stupid, but it bears saying. I am afraid to ask him questions; I don’t want to appear amateurish or needing constant hand-holding. Your editor is always on your side, though; they want your book to succeed as much as you do
  • This has been my first real experience of producing work to a deadline since university. It was a challenge, and in the end I missed it by a few days, despite working evenings. Fortunately my editor is on Twitter and saw some of my more desperate pleas for help and emailed me to see how I was going. This gave me the chance to explain that a) I was just being melodramatic for the purposes of comic effect and b) yes, the deadline was a challenge. Which leads me to the following conclusions:
    • Good communication really, really helps
    • Try and get as much info as possible at the beginning: what has the copyeditor been told? What edition are you editing? I started without knowing that I was specifically working on a US release, which caused me some confusion
    • Be careful what you put on Twitter
    • If you have a problem or an issue with the editor’s/copyeditor’s ideas you should flag it as soon as possible
  • US and British English really are two different languages. One of the hardest things for me was seeing all my usage of ‘whilst’ being changed to ‘while’, even when it was plainly wrong. Also ‘homely’ has different meanings depending on which side of the pond you are
  • All these people really want to make your book better

This has been uncharted territory for me. This may just be a brief lacuna before another wave of work washes me away, but for now I am mopping my brow, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting up the metaphorical cigarette of post-coitality.

The copy-edits are done. I am a step closer to being a published author.