How to crash a car

car.jpg

You know you’re in trouble as soon as you hit the accelerator. The front wheels don’t grip, you oversteer; you have a fraction of a second to try and hold it together before you hit the verge. You’re not quite sure how it happens but you’re thrown back across the road.

You have another second to try and gain control but it’s useless. Your first thought is ‘I hope no-one’s watching this.’ Your second is that the crash is inevitable.

You hit the off-side verge almost straight on; you’re not sure how fast you’re going but it’s fast enough to leap the ditch completely and smash into the bank beyond.

Time for one more thought: ‘This is going to hurt.’

The impact is a barrage. The windscreen shatters. The seatbelt grips. The airbags blow. Then you’re rolling and you lose all sense of direction.

Stillness.

Now the thoughts come hard upon each other: you’re alive; you’re in pain (chest, shoulder, knee, hip); the air is thick with smoke; the baby’s screaming.

This last thought pushes all the others into nothing.

You hit the seatbelt release – no fumbling, just one and done – and let yourself to the ground. You’re lost; don’t know how the car has landed. You consider searching for your phone and glasses but they’re not important, not crucial. You crawl into the back, grateful that however you settled the way seems clear. A moment to realise that the smoke is probably the explosive from the airbags.

Your baby is still in her car-seat, upside down, wailing. You say something to her, or at least you think you do, and support her as you release her. Again, no fumbling; she drops into your arms and now she’s right-side up and still screaming but you cradle her and coo to her and wonder how to get out.

The door is above you. You find the release and push but you’ve only got one hand. It doesn’t give at first. You try again and this time you get something behind it.

Then the door is pulled up. The onlookers have arrived, the assistance. You pass out the baby. You haul yourself up and let arms take you, undignified, to the ground. No, you say, there’s no-one else inside. Just me. Just the baby. You take her back and let yourself be led to a waiting car. Has anyone called emergency services? Not you.

You sit and cuddle your girl. You want to cry; you are crying. The pain’s not too bad. The shame, the shame, the humiliation. What happened? The truth is that you were going too fast for the conditions. There’s no other truth, though you dearly wish there was. It’s your fault. You lost it.

People are kind. You phone her mother on a borrowed phone. You speak to emergency services on another. The ambulance comes; you try to thank people but words are tricky. You hold on to the girl and never want to let go.

The ambulance arrives. Then the police. The breathalyser. People are telling you to be strong, be a father; guilt can come later. It’s already here, you want to say. A spectre of failure. you’ve let everyone down, wasted everybody’s time. You’re the statistic you swore you’d never become.

You’re fine, but for a minor fracture and a lot of bruising. The car is written off.  The baby… prognosis uncertain.

You go to hospital. You’re still not sure if you’re allowed to cry.

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The way it is

 

English in Asian Airports

Alfie lived at home with his mum, his dad, his sister … and a troop of monkeys. For some reason, no-one could see the monkeys except Alfie. That was just the way it was.

I shouldn’t let a children’s book make me angry. The intended audience don’t care about bad writing, or poor storytelling, though they might not find a book interesting for reasons we might describe as weak structure.

But I am not a child. And the above extract, the opening to No More Monkeys, by Joshua George and Barbara Bakos, makes my blood boil. It’s quite impressive, actually: the sheer badness contained within 33 words. And that they dared to put these words right at the beginning of the book. The publishers have some serious brass neck.

No more monkeys

Shall we start to unpick it? First off: we don’t need ‘at home’ in the first line. Of course he lives at home. He can’t live anywhere else, can he? I’d concede the words might be taken as shorthand for ‘in an ordinary house and not in an igloo or on the moon or in a moon-igloo’ if it wasn’t a picture book. But it is. The ordinariness of the residence is simple to establish.

But that’s not the problem. That is a forgivable error. I don’t demand perfection in children’s books (though maybe I should): I can write that off as part of the voice and the rhythm of the story.

What I can’t forgive are the three little words that open the second sentence.

For some reason.

Let me translate: ‘For some reason’ means ‘the author hasn’t bothered to think about this.’ ‘The author has no respect for his reader.’ ‘It’s too much effort to come up with a real explanation.’

For some reason. Let me tell you, if you ever find yourself writing ‘for some reason’ in your work; or if you have things ‘just the way they’ve always been’, then you’re letting your readers down.

It’s a close cousin to that old beta-reader feedback: if a reader says ‘I didn’t understand this,’ it’s not not good enough to say ‘well that’s because of this complex set of subtleties, and therefore I dismiss your point.’ It doesn’t matter if you’ve considered it if you’ve not explained it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to go into every little thing that underpins your worldbuilding, or even that you have to consider every little variable of, say, the currency system in your world. But anything integral to the plot has to have an explanation. How you communicate that is a different issue.

I find this particular example really galling because it’s so unnecessary. The author could have put ‘The monkeys were invisible to everyone but Alfie’ – no reason is necessary. Or ‘The monkeys would only show themselves to Alfie and were really good at hiding when anyone else was around.’ That one’s nice because it conjures up a clear mental image that the writer and artist could play with. Bonus!

That’s just with two minutes’ thought. You can think of more alternatives yourself. Think of it as a little writing free exercise. You’re welcome.

Error number three: that final sentence. ‘That was just the way it was.’ My god this is horrible. You know what this means? This is the writer saying ‘I know the last sentence wasn’t good enough. Let me just reinforce my laziness by doubling down. No, you’re not allowed to be curious. That’s just the way it is. Some things will never change. Ask no questions and I’ll tell you no lies.’

It’s bad.

It’s the sort of thing you see in books all the time. One of my problems with The Time-Traveller’s Wife is the way the author casually dismisses all possibility of change. It’s been a while since I read it, but there is a point where the narrator says something like ‘it was predestined. There was no way to change the future.’ I nearly screamed. Why? Why is it predestined? Why can’t you change things? Wouldn’t you try? Wouldn’t you at least make the effort?

At the very least, if you don’t know why something happens, keep quiet about it. Shut your bloody trap and let us keep the illusion that you know what you’re talking about.

Right. Rant over. I’m off to take my blood-pressure medication; hopefully I’ll have something more interesting to write about next week.

As you were.

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.

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.