The road to Good

Image

The first step towards doing something well is to do it badly.

I could be talking about more or less anything. The first draft; the rough demo, or sketch; hell, this blog usually requires a very erratic (and badly grammaticised) bash-through before I’ve worked out precisely what I want to say and how I want to say it.

You sit in front of the computer and you have an idea. You think it’s going to be easy. You struggle to get the words to appear, dark and dreamlike, in front of you, but something goes awry. The sentences don’t flow. Everything is half-baked, clumsy; like a five-year-old on his standardised national test, you shake and tremble and break down in tears as the dialogue that finally emerges seems to have come straight from the aforementioned five-year-old. Sucks to be you.

Be reassured. Everyone goes through this. And it’s easier to fix dodgy work than it is to pour genius onto a blank page. This is where I am with my artwork for Night Shift.

NS2b3

The image here is my first proper attempt at my front cover. I am not happy with it. The figure on the left looks like a robot. The body’s bum is too sharp. Nothing is consistent. There is a distinct lack of harmony.

But getting to this stage is a victory. This is my proof-of-concept: the first real manifestation of the idea I want to bring forth. I had to produce something I’m not happy with so that I can see what’s wrong with both the original idea and the execution – and so I can make subsequent versions better.

The first draft is always the hardest. It takes the most time as you struggle with your tools, with how best to use them, with a lack of prescience and a hole in the bottom of your skills-basket. The second – even if you have to totally scrap the original and start from scratch – will always be easier. You have a map. You have a plan. You know where you’re going. You can avoid the dead-ends and the boggy morasses in favour of higher, more solid, ground.

I will return to my artwork. I will modify my gradient maps (and if you don’t know what a gradient map is, neither did I until a few days ago). I will be more careful with my shading. And, once that’s done, I’ll turn my attention to the equally important choices of font, layout and scaling. Hell, if all else fails I’ve got an idea I can show to a professional so they can do it better.

Now I know where I’m going. With a little luck – and a lot of help – I’ll get there in the end.

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.

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.”

 

Beyond the Editorium

Editorium End

The lambuscript and scene-by-scene guide all scribbled-upon and ready to be encomputerised

Update time: I’ve just finishing my first read-through of my first draft of Oneiromancer. For those new to this blog, don’t worry if that means nothing to you. I’ve not posted that much about the actual story, and I’m not going to start here. There’s plenty of work still to be done, and plenty of chance to snare you into my world of visions and wonder.

The read-through, all cosy in my Editorium, has been fun. The slog of the first draft, the puzzle-box devising, the tormenting of my characters and their individual journeys, is over. There is a sense that the hard work is done, although (if experience is any guide) that’s almost certainly untrue. I’m sure my beta-readers, when this finally goes out to them, will request extra bits in the most inconvenient way possible. They will demand I excise whole sections that contain crucial information that must be retained somewhere, somehow. And I will swear.

Back to this run-through. Let’s start by saying what the second draft not: it’s not going through and correcting spelling and improving prose. That’s what I used to think. When I first started writing seriously I thought that editing was improving the writing and killing typos. Now I know I was wrong. The most important thing here is to fix the plot. Sure, as I read through I’m keeping an eye out for base errors, for poor dialogue or clumsy (or simply second-best) prose; I’m incapable of not looking for things like this. But at this stage plot is paramount.

Sometimes you have to write things to work out in your mind where you need to go. This is where the famous soggy middle comes from, I think. Sometimes you can almost hear the author thinking ‘right, where do I need to go from here? How do we get there?’ These passages need to be written: they’re the author’s way of finding the path. But they have no place in the finished novel. Cut – cut cut cut. But in every excision there’s a small piece of information that needs inserting, or a particularly revealing snatch of conversation, so it’s not just a case of going through the text with a pair of scissors.

Then there are all the changes that the characters have been through. Of course you want them to end as slightly different people (in some cases they’ve changed from ‘alive’ to ‘metabolically challenged’) as they live through the novel. But sometimes their base identity changes: your heroes, you realise, are better slightly older, or younger, than you originally had them. Maybe you realise that the childhood trauma you gave them isn’t the right foundation upon which to hang their neuroses. The second draft is the place to go through and fix all these errors-that-aren’t-really-errors; to adjust initial descriptions, to foreshadow later shocks and to take the deus from the machina.

It is a twofold process. The first half is spent with the manuscript and a pen and copious ad-hoccery. That’s what I’ve now completed. The second half is spent on the computer actually entering in the changes and will take a lot longer. This is because most of my notes are either illegible or run along the lines of ‘insert new scene: ref. Jazz – she’s been to a club/gig (too young?)’ thus leaving almost of the work to Future Rob. I’ve been highlighting work to do rather than actually doing it. Past Rob is right pain in the backside, as anyone who knows him will testify.

So this next pass will take much longer. It will combine small, local improvements (the ‘writing’) and larger situational changes. Locations may change. Characters certainly will. I have at least two new scenes to write and a half-dozen to delete. Then and only then will the novel go out for reading by people other than me. I’m aiming at the end of February for that particular milestone. But don’t worry, lovely bloggites. Whether you care or not, you will be kept informed.

Happy writing.

On discouragement

Writing is in large part dealing with discouragement. And uncertainty. The two things that we must face are discouragement and uncertainty. And poverty. The three things – hang on, I’ll come in again.

Last night I took a recent batch of words to my wonderful critique group (of which, for my sins, I am Chair) and I got them critiqued. And it was a discouraging experience. Nary a positive thing was said. And on my way home I was considering all my excuses, of which a sample I shall here present for you:

  • I didn’t set the scene properly
  • I chose the wrong scenes to present
  • There are many characters and not enough time (with a 1,500 word cap) to draw distinctions between them
  • The scene is fragmentary and involves multiple points of view – and, indeed, is part of a very complex novel
  • It’s in a genre that few others in the group are familiar with
  • They know I’m a decent writer and so they don’t feel they have to bolster me with praise
  • It was a linking section and so not much actually happened

Excuses. All excuses. And I’ve no idea how much merit any of them have. Almost as soon as I thought these things I was countering with:

  • These people are good writers, wordsmiths I respect; if they say something doesn’t work then it doesn’t work
  • A good piece of writing should stand on its own without context
  • Gaiman’s quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

So: discouragement. For just about the first time I came away from a meeting wondering what the point of it all was: why am I struggling to produce something that’s just not working? If I can’t create tension in quiet scenes then I’ve got nothing worthwhile at all. Quiet, building scenes are the most common in my novels and it’s a skill that needs to be mastered.

But my heart, my instincts are telling me that these scenes will work. When they’re placed in context, when we’ve had the full build-up of the novel to develop the characters and their voices, then this will come alive. I have to believe that. Sure, the writing needs improvement. I can sharpen the dialogue and the action and bring the characterisation alive. This is a first draft. Of course it’s not going to be perfect. I’ve written before (at least once) about the unimportance of words in this context, and I still believe that I’m right.

So I am upon the horns of a dilemma. I can’t allow myself to ignore criticism as that way lies arrogance and a failure to grow as a writer. But, frankly, I think that my group is wrong. My novel will work. This will work.

As a writer you need to be able to accept criticism and rejection and sometimes you’re going to hear things that hurt and sometimes you’re going to be left thinking ‘this person just doesn’t get it.’ But if you’re hearing the same thing over and over – the same specific suggestions, the same problems highlighted – then you really do need to look hard at your work and your skills. But you need at the same time to have a little faith in yourself.

As for me, I’m going to ignore this discouragement for now and crack on. There’s plenty of time for agonising in the second draft. But in order to have a second draft you must complete the first. And that’s what I’m off to work on now.