The time-traveller’s strife

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Should you ever get a book published you’re going to have to do a fair bit of promotion. And what you’re going to have to promote isn’t going to be very good.

That’s not actually true. What you’re pushing might actually be brilliant, a masterpiece – but it’s likely that you’ll already be neck-deep in another project by the time the book hits the shelves. And I’m willing to put money on your new work being better. Suddenly you’re dragged back to something you’re already feeling a little embarrassed about. Were you really so naïve as to write that? All those adverbs!

You can’t say that, though. You’re a writer, and writing is a business. You have to show belief in your work or no-one else will. And your publisher won’t be too pleased if the message you’re sending out is half-hearted.

Say, for example, that suddenly a forgotten submission for Chivalry came back with an offer of publication. I wrote the novel nearly a decade ago. There’s a lot I still like about it, but I’m damn sure I’m a better writer now. Suddenly I’m in a moral quandary: can I honestly do a book launch and say how great the work is? ‘Yeah, it’s okay, I suppose’ ain’t gonna shift copies.

And that’s before the questions about inspiration, character development and specific plot motifs are raised. Blimey, I can barely remember last week, let alone an idle piece of speculation nearly a decade gone.

Of course, this is all assuming I’d have a book launch, or that people would be asking me questions. But the same issues arise in more singular surroundings. I want people to read my books. I want people to buy my books. To do that I’d have to muster all my social media resources – this blog also – to promote my work.

I’ve said before that shouting on social media is no way to make friends, or sales, or garner even the most flickering of interests. But telling people I have a (still theoretical) novel on release is basic and acceptable. Which means I might have to adopt a more outgoing face than I would otherwise adopt; a positive pitch with no caveats or “I’m actually more interested in this’s” is the least I could provide.

So this is the tightrope the writer must walk: they must be able to promote a work they no longer see as word-perfect without lying. They must be able to answer questions they’d never considered about a book they may not have seriously contemplated for months.

And, of course, they must be prepared for reviews that make them squirm, whether they’re good or bad.

Writers are time-travellers. They must exist in the present, in the past – and also in the futures of the work they’re currently creating.

And they must do this without losing the essence of who they are. And who they were. And, just possibly, who they’ll be this time next week.

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Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

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.

“Heroes”

When Terry Pratchett died in August I fully intended to sit and write a post about how much I loved his work, how he’d filled my life with joys and riches. I never did it. A combination of just having too many words inside me and the flurry of similar pieces that filled the internet put me off.

Today I have awoken to find that the other great constant in my life, David Bowie, has also shuffled off this mortal coil. Now, despite the title of this piece, I can’t say I consider either of these gentlemen to be heroes. To be honest with you I’m not sure I really understand the concept; I can’t think of a single person I’ve ever held up as the acme of humanity. But I spent so much of my life – especially through my teenage years – either reading PTerry or listening to Bowie (often at the same time) that both these people are part of me. And it strikes me that one has been a much bigger inspiration on my writing than the other.

Terry Pratchett is the author I’ve read most in my life. By a mile. Since being introduced to him by a classmate aged twelve or thereabouts I’ve gone through all his books so many times. Truly, I’ve never found so much love, joy and delight in an author’s work. He took me through my depression. His words lifted my soul, his rolling prose contrasted with and underlined his pointed observations about human nature (for what is fantasy but a new way of looking at reality?). It’s writing to admire, to adore, to fall in love with. I will be forever grateful that I was given a chance to live in his world.

But I don’t think he’s shaped my writing at all. It certainly hadn’t; maybe now I’m just beginning to see some of his long undulating sentences twitch into my work. Still, I can’t think of a single idea that has been brought forth from the Discword. Maybe some of his ways of thinking have seeped into me, and maybe someday I’ll learn to allegorise: the way he showed the dangers of internecine religious differences in Thud; the strident anti-exploitation message in Snuff, and the general ‘stop this now, you’re all being terribly silly’-ness that lurk beneath the surface of just about every novel. But for now? Nothing. A love, an undying, unforgettable love for his work, but no ideas.

Bowie, on the other hand, gave me so much. The snaps of lyrics, the agonised yearning, the neverending hope: yes, these are things I’ve learnt all the way back to when I was dancing with my sister in her bedroom, when I was six or seven, not knowing anything about the man or – really – what the lyrics meant at all. But emotion, emotion – I understood that. I understood heartbreak and pain, and I learnt it all through music. Not just Bowie, of course; I still remember lying in bed, listening to The Beatles’ ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’; and being haunted by the key-change into the chorus. But Bowie was the master.

When I was sixteen ‘Candidate’ startled me to the point where I free-wrote a story based on the song as part of my GCSE English exam. I’d already attempted to write a novel based on the visions built by ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’. I’d tried to put a proper story behind Ziggy Stardust. I’d been terrified – in a good way – by that staggering, stuttering intro to ‘Five Years’ and the crazy longing in ‘Lady Stardust’. And lines from ‘Station to Station’ infested my poetry, my lyrics, my life.

I could write thousands of words about this. I’ve written about my distrust of ideas several times on this blog, but today I’m only just realising how different are ideas and inspiration. And my inspiration as a writer comes magnificently and majestically from music. Not just Bowie – of course not just Bowie. REM, Kate Bush, New Model Army, Swervedriver – so many, so many wonderful artists that have touched me so deeply, that have – yes – inspired me. Still I find myself most fruitful when I’m half-asleep in the car, with a CD playing. That’s when the ideas come.

I’m struggling here to conflate two concepts. Half of me wants to eulogise for these wonderful human beings, to extol their virtues, to give more and more examples of how they’ve touched me and shaped who I am. The other half wants to make a serious point about inspiration. Perhaps I’m doing neither justice, and for that I apologise. But what’s really struck me is that I am a writer by accident. It should come as no surprise that many writers started out as musicians; I can site J. Kent Messum, Joolz Denby and all these, and that’s before I even consider descending to Dan Brown/Morrissey levels.

I adore Terry Pratchett. Reading – reading him – is a true delight and I will never fail to find wonder and comfort and wisest, wisest wisdom in his work. But I’m not a writer because of him. I’m not a writer because of any of the amazing books I’ve read, that I wish I’d written. I’m a writer because of music. And whenever I need to top up my well of inspiration it’s not my bookshelf I’ll turn to but my CD rack. David Bowie was my first and my deepest. It’s nothing but fitting that he managed to stage-manage his death so well: and there’s surely a story right there.

Bring forth the sacrificial lambuscript!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He's really good!

The Sacrificial Lambuscript: original art by Peat Blagg @peat999. He’s really good!

Some people are better at some things than others. Yes, I know – blindingly obvious, huh? But it’s amazing how much stall you can put in a single person’s advice, no hint of a second opinion or of checking over for anything missed.

I have the very good fortune to belong to AB-FAG, my local manuscript-critique-exchange group. Last week was one of our periodic get-togethers where, over a pint or two (white wine for the ladies*), we eviscerate our sacrificial lambuscript and perform several pagan – and probably illegal – orgiastic dances with its entrails. The cleaning bill’s a bit of a bugger, but it is a guaranteed cure of all known arrogances, blockages, superverbosities and misplaced metaphors in the writing world.

The point (and there is one) is this. Some people can spot things like plot-holes or impossible travel times. Some people are quite happy to let those go but are absolutely abhorring of the misplaced apostrophe. Some are super-hot at dialogue; when it’s singing and when it’s turning into gruesome parody.

My thing is the factual error; internal contradictions; things that a character describes but can’t actually see; and a side-order of plot-nonconvincery and missing motivations. A colleague is hot on character and voice. These strengths overlap (we hope) with those of the rest of the group. We can all see these things but some emphasise some things over others. Sometimes this leads to intense debate. Example: in this last manuscript there is a character of a piratical nature. Two of the group found him shallow and lacking in logic/motivation. Two others had absolutely no problem and thought him convincingly villainous.

It is an aside that the two who thought him shallow were male and the two who liked him female. Not sure if that really means anything. Just, as I said, an aside.

It’s up to the writer whether they make any changes – on this and on anything else – or if they simply say ‘to hell with you all’. The point is that one person can mislead, can give you a bum steer. There’s no guarantee that a multitude will be any righter, but a more rounded critique – by a body of people who read both in- and outside of the (any) genre – can be nothing but useful.

Because everyone reads differently. Even professionals – agents and editors and the like – have their strengths and weaknesses. They should be all-round better than you and I because it’s their job to see things from many angles: they should have the experience to have raised their floor to a level above that of the average joe. But – and I’m sure you all know this – they’re only human. Your manuscript can fall on the wrong desk at the wrong time. Some people might have a sudden urge for a red-hot erotic fantasy just as your worldly-worthy study in Victorian prudery arrives in their inbox. Just your bad luck.

There’s nothing you can do about luck. The only thing that’ll help you is to make sure that you’ve got the best possible material out there just in case your epic tome on German cheesemaking lands on the desk of a committed subscriber of Westphalia Tilsiter at the time when she’s desperate to bring her passion to the masses. And the best way to get the best possible material is to share your drafts with as wide an audience as possible – preferably early enough in your writing process that you’ve time and energy to make the changes.

And now I’m off to prepare my own sacrificial lambuscript for the altar of public opinion. Happy writing to all.

*An Al Murray/Pub Landlord quote. Not being sexist. Honest.

The climax

So. The Climax. The decisive moment – the event, the emotion that you’ve spent the whole novel waiting for, writing for. The bit where the tension you’ve been ratcheting up for the last hundred pages finally explodes as the brakes fail and the momentum splinters like an industrial accident.

Modern novels are all about tension. Climaxes are the ultimate release of that tension. The climax of the stereotypical detective story is in the reveal of the killer (‘I expect you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…’) – although these days there’s usually a chase and a fight just after the reveal for one last stroke of adrenaline and power.

This tension is why I like quick jump-cut scenes in the final stages: two things happening simultaneously. Build up the action in one, bring us to a high-point – and then cut to the other characters before the action is resolved. Build this new scene up – and then jump back. Never let the reader relax. Keep the buggers on tenterhooks.

What matters is less the logic of the situation, less the blood and the smug satisfaction of having got one over on your readers: it’s about the emotions you create. Violence without an emotional punch is just sadism. It’s the completion of the hero’s journey, their final step to independence. It’s about making that definitive decision that allows them to grow, to be free. A final realisation. A psychic blow to the gut that leaves the reader breathless, drained and – yes – satisfied.

This is why I always like to sacrifice an ally in the climax – someone the audience (and author) has grown to care about. To show them this is real, it has consequences, that winning hurts.

It’s also why pacing is so important in the world of the novel. You need your lull before the resolution. You need your moments of fear and anxiety and introspection so that when you come to the crunch you can accelerate from thereon in. Shorten your sentences. Forget the prose. Forget description. Feel the punches; mix it with long run-on sections to bring out and the breathlessness and the panic and chaos (for speed is inherently chaotic) and punctuation is optional for this is your oh my god this hurts this hurts moment.

The antagonist – usually an external force, but not always – may be defeated. They may not. But even defeat must give a sense that the (surviving) characters have learnt and grown. Otherwise you’re writing a very bleak piece indeed.

Of course, that might be the point. But it’s always nice to have hope.

And, after the climax is complete, it’s time for the denouement where we sift through the wreckage in search of unanswered questions. But more on that later.

For now – happy writing, folks.