Nothing doing

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I’ve done nothing, you say? Nothing at all? Tish and piffle. Here’s what I’ve done this week:

  • Learnt the difference between a rook and a crow: “If it’s ‘crows’ it’s ‘rooks’. If it’s ‘rook’ it’s ‘crow.’” (The point being that rooks are social and crows solitary.)
  • Continued my studies of comparative suburban architecture by dint of walking for tens of miles through various estates, trying to identify the basic ‘house’ beneath years of alterations
  • Studied the interactions of homo sapiens sapiens in a variety of habitats: a greasy spoon in a middle-class town, for example, or the chitterings of parents in the back of a small car
  • Learnt of the longevity of Fen-management techniques and of the benefits of flooding
  • Critiqued a stranger’s décor
  • Was judged on appearance and attitude by strangers
  • Lay on the floor for a while and contemplated the futility of human existence
  • Fought with the NHS switchboard and its plethora of Kate’s
  • Led the expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Was deposed from leadership of expedition to conquer the many roundabouts of Milton Keynes
  • Explored the origins and implications of the Tribal Hidage
  • Dithered over the costs and benefits of childcare
  • Studied mothers and children
  • Pined for social media
  • Ruminated on the nature and necessity of tact

A writer doing nothing? Impossible. What you may think is wool-gathering, or prevarication, or honest-to-goodness laziness is, in fact, method acting: assimilation of source material; an exploration of perspective. What might appear to be idleness is merely necessary research.

So be wary when contemplating the writer. It’s rare that the observer isn’t also the observed.

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Seeking inspiration

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If you’re in a hole, stop digging. Unless you’re trying to find water, in which case pause to check you’re in the right place, wipe your brow, and dig on.

Should your well run dry, there are two possible solutions: you could read, or you could talk to writers. You should also try not to be too hard on yourself, but I’ve never been good at that one.

The great August of Doom is over. Life rolls on. I achieve little. But talking literature (in its broadest sense) is always an inspiration, so last night I made one of my periodic excursions to my writing group – less regular that I used to, thanks to sproggage and associated exhaustion – and I now find myself somewhat recharged: still frustrated by my lack of personal progress, but a little less empty, a little less flat.

The experience of experience and evaluating the work of others is always rewarding. Ideas spark ideas: a candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. This is horrendously trite but no less true for that. So I return to an old piece of advice: if you want to write you should join a writing group. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute, do not miss the chance to be inspired. Do not miss the chance to learn. To not miss the chance to improve, even if you never share your own work and just listen, absorb, and swell with literary power.

I suppose this is just another way of saying that I’ve achieved nothing this week. But that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe – just maybe – it’s not an onrushing train.

Strata and substrata

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Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

Well run dry

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August is traditionally the down month in publishing. It’s when all the merry little agents and editors take a well-deserved break: no conferences are arranged, no junkets junked. Business essentially stops for a month.

This, at least, is what I’ve been told. I’m sure times have moved on, now, and there are now no rests for anyone, wicked or not. But you do still hear the old advice not to submit any work in August because no-one’s gonna read it.

So if you’re going to pick a month where you achieve nothing, you might as well make it August. Likely enough no-one else is doing anything either. Nothing worthwhile, at least: what good are holidays or spending time with the family anyway? Stupid unproductive wastes of time.

This is, of course, a joke. Just spelling it out in case my wife reads this.

All this is an unnecessarily convoluted way of saying that it’s not been a great month for me. I’ve had some personal issues that have made it hard to be my usual ebullient self on Twitter – and this matters, to me at least – and I feel like my well has drawn dry.

I know this is a phase: that everyone goes through it; that inspiration does not work according to schedule. Indeed, this is my only justification for saying this here – that sometimes you feel like you’re the only person in the world that experiences these things. Sorry if that makes you feel less special, you beautiful and unique snowflake, you. But if it helps reassure anyone, good.

Writing is a difficult, painful thing. It doesn’t take much to knock a writer off his stride: all manner of things the reader will never see. Rejection is the obvious, but writers are (mostly) human beings – all the things that can disrupt you can get to them as well.

Anyway, there’s no point moping. Sometimes the only thing to do is to suck it up and get back to it. So back I go into the land of tinkerisation, of editing a book that might need sweeping changes and not the little rephrasings I’m able to provide.

My mojo will return. I’ll wake up one morning brimming with inspiration and I’ll pour words onto the page like the metaphor that metaphors metaphoringly.

Today is not that day.

Unholy Pitches

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For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try and sell a novel with an ensemble cast.

That’s the message I have for you today; another episode in the ‘Oh my lord, what the hell have I done?’ series I’ve been running for what seems like forever. Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to write a novel with an ensemble cast – write what the hell you like – but trying to create a pitch for a novel without a single identifiable star is another thing entirely.

Yes, it’s more Pitch Wars angst from me. By the time you read this I’ll have sent my submission into the electronic ether* and I’ll be chewing on my knuckles, fingernails long-since devoured. See, the thing about Pitch Wars is that you actually have to pitch. Or at least you have to write a query letter.

Now a long, long time ago I was actually brave/stupid enough to try and give advice on querying. I think, by and large, I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I didn’t realise then that American queries are different. And Pitch Wars uses the American system.

Basically, an American pitch is – well, it’s a pitch. Basically it’s like sending a mini-synopsis or book-blurb, the kind you’d see on the back of a novel. These are hard at the best of times but when you have seven major characters, all of whom demand that they’re the star? A blurb that covers all of them would completely cover the back of a book (in very small print) and start creeping across the front as well. And that’s before we get to what actually happens to significant minor creatures, like the girl whose murder sparks a whole sub-plot and emotional wringeration, or the creepy neighbour-witch who gives another character a major fillip…

So basically I have to choose one of my cast and put her centre-stage, ignoring the rest of the crew. It’s the only way I can see to do it. But she’s not the character the novel opens with, and I worry about confusing the reader/judge, and, and, and…

So if all you out there want to save your sanity, don’t work with ensemble casts. Not on your debut, at least. Save it until you’ve got a reputation, when people are slightly more likely to indulge you. It’s the only way to be safe.

 

*Not submitted yet. Today. Tomorrow at the latest. Stupid last-minute editing

The frustration of not writing

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I have no idea who owns the copyright to this image, but it’s pretty great

There is little in life as frustrating as not being able to work on what you want. I have many hard, difficult, but necessary tasks awaiting my attention. Sadly, I also have an unwell wife and a squeaksome Lyrapillar to wrangle, in addition to all the normal detritus of life such as Paid Employment of Doom and chasing a mayor for money.

So: here are my current projects. For some reason I’m trying to do them concurrently. This will obviously go well.

  • A new novel. Of the many potential story-ideas I’ve had rolling around for a while, I’ve decided to go with the fenland, possibly YA, one. I don’t really know what the story is – or where it’ll go – but I’m getting there. Slowly.
  • A short story. I don’t do short stories. I never have; they’re just not part of my cultural makeup. But I’ve written one; or, at least, I have a really crap first draft that I want to gut and reassemble. Just for fun – just because I have a half-asleep shower idea that I thought might make an interesting piece of flash fiction. It’s got slightly out of hand and needs a total rewrite.
  • Editing Oneiromancer. Right. So this is the big one. This is the one I least want to do. But after myriad rejections I’ve determined that I’ll enter Oneiromancer into this year’s Pitch Wars event/competition/whatever. I’ve previously promised to say more about this and I will. For now, though, my priority is to take a good hard look at the way my novel opens and simplify, deepen and simplify again. Possibly with a chainsaw.

The thing is that no matter how difficult I find these things, no matter how I might procrastinate, they’re always on my mind. They’re The Things I Should be Doing. Writing is, as they say, a form of madness, a mania. You know you’re a writer when these things become compulsions and you can’t not write.

Writing is not the most important thing in my life. My family comes first. But writing is the thing I most need to do; the thing I should be doing when I’m not.

In fact, the only time is when I don’t want to be writing is when I’m sitting in front of a computer and I can’t think where the story is going. That’s when the washing-up is at its most appealing.

Better words

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Nothing says ‘British holiday’ like driving rain and 40mph winds

Last week I wrote about how poorly-chosen words can affect how people see the world; how we subconsciously shape gender-roles and the ease with which we can slip into bad habits. Words, as they say, matter.

My wife quite correctly called me up on this. She pointed out that I wasn’t at fault for calling my daughter pretty, or sweetheart, or anything I saw as gender-specific. The problem is that I saw it as gender-specific. Why should I think sweetheart, or honey, or beautiful, is a word that’s for women?

She’s right. Why shouldn’t I use these words for boys? There really isn’t any reason, and I am humbled. Subconscious biases surround us and they need to be acknowledged and challenged; shaken up to the light and seen as the transparent, gossamer things they are. For what is writing but a way of exploring the world around us?

Anyway, I’ve been on holiday for most of the week and so I have very little to talk about, writing-wise. Have instead a few pretty pictures to brighten up your day.

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If Stonehenge is the stern patriarch, Avebury is the louche uncle: mysterious, fun and just ever so slightly shady

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Dartmoor’s one of those places that’s as beautiful in wild weather as it is in glorious sunshine

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Not an evening for pleasure-boating. But check out those beautiful strata!