Bringing the band together

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Stolen from here

Oneiromancer has an ensemble cast. It has five characters who think they’re the star; each has a point of view and rather like having the focus on them, thank you very much. This is great. This is the story I wanted to tell and it’s a lot of fun, slipping beneath skins and giving different perspectives. Like a movie I can select the viewpoint and give the information I want given.

But, inevitably, there is a problem. Put simply, I don’t know how to start the novel. My early drafts had each ‘hero’ taking their turn: building a scene as they saw it, and then moving to the next person. And, as I’ve never been a big fan of ‘five men walked into a bar’ setups (although I am a big fan of bars), each of them was in a different place, a different time, with no connection to the scene that came before.

In other words I had a series of ‘starts’, none of which built on a narrative. Early criticism was that the novel didn’t really cohere until around the fifth chapter, by which time we’d met all the main players.

So I rewrote the beginning. I removed some early POV changes/introductions and tried to ‘flow’ from one character to the other. But it seems I didn’t go far enough. More simplification is needed. More difficulties are to be overcome.

Oneiromancer is a long novel. All the characters are well bound together, and the POV changes – I think – work well over the long haul. I don’t want to change it. Besides, lots of novels have ensemble casts and continent-spanning perspectives aren’t something to be feared.

But we still have to get the beginning down. Nobody will stick around to witness the genius of my legerdemain if they give up on the novel before my characters collide. Agents base their initial decisions on less and less material: ten pages is now normal. Why should they – or you – read more than that? It’s not as if we’re starved of quality literature.

So it’s back to the start with me. Lop off the first chapter, extract any relevant info, compress and sneak it back in later. And then it’s all about the hope – and the next round of beta reading and feedback and rejection – that this time it works. That I can properly bait the audience until they’re hooked, unable to wriggle away.

Ensemble casts are, in summary, a bugger. If anyone has any answers I’m all ears.

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.

The great mistake

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Okay. I made a mistake. I made the same mistake I made a dozen times before. To do the same thing and expect a different response is madness. Make of that what you will.

This is what I’m thinking: I sent Oneiromancer out too soon. I should have polished it further. Perhaps I was arrogant; I had too much faith in the improvements I’ve seen in myself as a writer (which I still believe are there – I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago). I overrode my own doubts, and this is always, always a mistake.

I’ve had some twenty rejections so far, with a few submissions still outstanding. No-one (agents only so far) has requested a full manuscript. Now is the choice: I can keep going, reaching deeper into the list of fantasy-accepting agents I find across the internetverse. Or I can pull back and reconsider my options.

The reason I’d push on is simple: it’s easy. I have a query letter that I still think is good and is relatively easily tailored to an individual agent’s tastes. I have my sample material and synopsis ready. Each rejection can be simply met with two more submissions sent out. Like Hydra, soon my sinuous necks will envelop the planet.

But easy is not necessarily best. Maybe it’s time for me to pause. To look again at the opening of my novel and see if it can’t be improved.

I still believe in Oneiromancer. It’s a good story, strong and dark and rich. I’m not fooling myself into thinking it’s perfect, though. They say you should never send out anything that isn’t perfect, but I’d reached a point where I couldn’t improve it any more. I’d reached the end of my mental strength and needed professional input to smooth out those last few creases.

It is, perhaps, arrogance that persuaded me that an agent would be the place to get that assistance. But, in my defense, this is what had happened with Night Shift. And my work has been beta-read and improvements made. What’s the alternative? The only one, so far as I can see, is to pay hundreds of pounds to a literary consultancy and that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t appeal.

So here is my plan: I will pause on the submissions. I will start on an entirely new writing project. I will, when I get a little mental clarity, try and re-examine the first three chapters of Oneiromancer to make sure my lure is as irresistible as possible to agents.

I have as a deadline and incentive this year’s Pitch Wars competition. More on that in future posts. For now, however, I must go and do some real writing.

On location

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The Carnac stones, Brittany

I have a problem. Actually I have many problems, but let’s keep the focus small, shall we? This particular problem is that I lack imagination. I struggle to write about places that I’ve never been.

I want to write a novel set in Brittany. I love its history, its myths and legends (which I don’t know enough about) and its position on the fringes. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been there.

I’m willing to bet that most novels are set either in a place that the writer knows well or a fantasy representation thereof. I hold as Exhibit A the writings of JRR Tolkien: what is the Shire but the idealised Black Country of his childhood? What is Mordor but the industrial ruin he saw it becoming? Donna Leon writes about Venice in a way that only a lover can.

Thus The Ballad of Lady Grace was set in an (unnamed) Norwich, where I was living at the time. Chivalry was set in Bradford, where I grew up. Oneiromancer was ostensibly set in London, but really it’s every inner city I’ve ever known, seen on television or read about. Only Night Shift was set in a place I’d never been – Antarctica – and even there the ‘location’ was the cold, not the landscape. I’ve been cold many times.

Maybe fantasy or sci-fi are easier because we can take our favourite elements, our favourite geographies, and build a world from the pieces. But I want to write about a real place, or at least a place based on a real land. I want it to taste right.

You might be saying ‘well, can’t Google give you location? Can’t Street View give you everything you need?’ And the internet is a wonderful, transformative tool. But location is a lot more than just geography and architecture. It’s about the way the air tastes. It’s the way the mist lingers in the valleys, and the way the sun finally burns it away. It’s the humidity, and the birdsong, and the berries in the hedgerow. It’s whether dogshit is picked up or left to rot in the long grass. It’s the buzz of insects, the looks of the villagers; it’s holloways or causeways. It’s claustrophobia or agoraphobia or hydrophobia or sunstroke.

It’s also how it changes in different conditions, in different seasons, in different streets.

This is why I’m considering moving my Brittanic adventures to Devon, where I can smell the tall hedges and the narrow lanes and feel the waves crashing against undercut stacks. Except that I’m sick of the southern-British bias in writing. I’m a northerner at heart; why not write about the Pennine hills?

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Because Plot. Because I’ve been shaping story around the politics of (real and imagined) Brittany. Crowbarring it into Devon might work, but a Yorkshire secessionist league – whilst obviously something for us all to dream of – is currently stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.

There is another possibility, and that’s that I’m subconsciously using all this uncertainty to allow me to delay the actual writing of the damn novel. Really what I need to do is get the hell on with it; make my decision and stick with it.

But location is more than a backdrop. It’s a character, an ever-present – an ever-presence, even. A change in location can mark a change in mood, in intensity. Location matters. Give it the respect it deserves and the whole novel will be the better for it.

Undone

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Copyright Charles Schultz, used without permission because I don’t understand how this works. Get in touch if you’re offended and we’ll see what is to be done

Too much rejection leaves a bitter aftertaste; lips covered in splinters from all the doors shut in the face. I don’t know what I have left. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve not got what it takes.

I’m not going to give up writing because I can’t. It’s the only thing I’m even halfway good at and it’s deep in me, now. It’s too late for me to do anything even halfway worthwhile with my life. I have nothing left. This is my last card.

I’m not going to give up, but sometimes it’s hard to see the point of struggling on.

I know that all authors get rejected, that I can always self-publish. Well I’m not sure if my temperament is right for self-publishing: I have an almost pathological aversion to spending money on uncertainties and I don’t know where to begin. And I know all authors get rejected, but over the course of four novels I’ve had several hundred ‘no’s. That’s cold comfort right there. The Stoics got nothin’ on me.

Maybe I should take consolation from Nietsche and look at all my failures as the building-blocks to future success – the ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ approach. Well maybe. But how strong do we have to get? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but that which does will make us dead.

A little encouragement would go a long way. Sometimes you need to be told you’re on the right road; or be told of a shortcut, or even of a different destination with a better view. In this case it’d just be nice to hear that my work is worth something, worth sending out.

If all this sounds like a cry for help, for attention, that’s not the intention. This blog has always been half advice, half confessional: it’d be dishonest not to talk about the bad days as well as the good. All writers will feel like this at some point. I know that, you know that. Everyone has that ‘well what the hell’s the point of me?’ moment.

That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

The depression doesn’t get any less deep.

The Road to Bedlam

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I’m currently enjoying a bad book. Needless words, repetition, lack of subtext: the writing is sometimes amateurish to the point of parody.

My sympathies go out to the author as I don’t feel it’s really his fault. But, as a writer, I can’t but laugh (or wince, or simply gape) when I come across professionally-produced writing that’s – well, that’s just bad.

A few examples:

“He offered his hand, and I shook it.”

Error one: it’s pointless. It adds nothing to the story. Error two: come on, now, we can all do better than this. “We shook hands” is better. “He offered his hand and, reluctantly, I shook” would give it context. But only if it mattered to the story – which, in this case, it doesn’t.

“No sinks on the walls, just pipes and screw-holes in the walls where mirrors had been mounted above them. There was a blank screen wall…”

I mean come on. We all know not to repeat word like this (and I could have expanded the section to find a lot more walls). This is so incredibly basic – and so terribly poor.

“…and then had to apologise to the young man who served me coffee while I paid for the drink and for a sandwich I’d picked up.”

Pointlessness again. We don’t need this detail. It’s also convoluted; at the very least the last three words can be cut without any loss of understanding.

“A breeze gusted.”

Breezes don’t gust. Breezes are breezes and gusts are gusts and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Such errors are scattered through the novel. But, as I said, I don’t blame the author. These are the mistakes that we all make as we do our thinking on the page. We experiment, we try out formations, and metaphors, and various shades of purple prose, whilst we hammer out the plot. But they should never reach print. No-one needs to see the author’s brain. And the author wants nobody to see it.

The work in question is The Road to Bedlam by Mike Shevdon. It’s the sequel to Sixty-One Nails and here, I think, we get to the root of the problem: it’s not his first work. The pressure to get a book to the publishers to schedule – with another on the horizon after that and a whole future to follow (the series stands at four) – means that pressures mount. Deadlines arrive.

Bedlam feels like a second draft. All the work has been put into plot and story. The actual words have been left for later.

So whose fault is it? Do we blame the publisher (the usually excellent Angry Robot)? Or the individual editor? Or the demands of an industry that requires work be squeezed out to schedule regardless of its quality? If anyone has an idea please do let me know.

The thing is: I opened this post by saying I was enjoying this book, and I am. There’s so much to recommend about it. The characters are good, the plotting promises a great final act and – poor writing notwithstanding – it’s carrying me with it. I will see this to the end. And if anything it’s all the goodness that shoves the poor writing into sharp relief. This isn’t some hack churning out amateurish self-pub level material*.

So how can a major publisher get away with releasing something that, in many ways, is so bad? And what can be done about it?

 


All quotes are from The Road to Bedlam, pub. Angry Robot 2012. I’ve been listening to the audio version, pub. 2014: as it’s audio I can’t give a page number, I’m afraid

*Not to imply that self-published works are inherently worse than trad-pubbed material. There’s a difference between ‘self-publishing’ and ‘amateurish self-publishing’

Downshift

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Things change. It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I was writing this merry little blog-post, filled with optimism, sunshine and metaphorical puppies. Now rejection is my only friend. I have exhausted the few connections I have. I am running out of options.

Writing is a funny game. There are so many slips ‘twixt cup and lip that it’s almost impossible to feel confident; even a critically-admired trilogy is no guarantee of book four reaching the shelves. There’s so much competition that we have to measure success in little ways: a personalised rejection; a request for a full manuscript, even if then rejected; ‘another agent might feel differently’. Small mercies. Cold comforts.

I want to be published. I want to make a career, even if it’s alongside Paid Employment, proofreading and all the rest. I believe I’m good enough. I’m certainly battered and ugly enough. So I find myself looking once again to self-publishing.

I have product: Night Shift is ready for press, its sequels drafted and requiring only another run-through or three. Oneiromancer is also ready to go, a simpler matter as the subject is deeper within my comfort zone. I’m planning a sequel to that – but herein, really, lies the rub: what’s the point of writing a sequel if the first book stands no chance (a premature statement, but still) of getting published?

The book will be written because the book needs to be written. When you have visions and wonders inside you have to find a way to let them out, regardless of the sense of it. This is what a writer is – a conduit between dreams and the wider world, and one that has only limited powers over what they emit.

But it’s frustrating and dispiriting. I understand the business; I understand that agents are overwhelmed with wannabees and they can only endorse the works they truly fall in love with.

But I’m getting old. I’ve given over a decade to writing and I believe that I’m good (for a given value of good) and will get better. What do I do? What do any of us do? Shall we organise a revolution and overthrow these guardians of respectability and set up our own empire of fools?

Or shall we just get back to the keyboard and keep going, keep going, keep going until we smash the walls with the sheer weight of our words?