Adult hard

overworked-woman

I have a normal life. By this I mean that, just like you, I try balance the many different calls upon my time without fear or favour; that I try to be productive and creative and all-round fabulous whilst getting the jobs done, keeping the house in a reasonable state and food on the metaphorical table. This isn’t always easy.

Things came to a head last week when I was forced to spend two whole mornings away from my manuscript. It’s quite amazing how this affected me; I was depressed and anxious, feeling like I was betraying myself and my dreams. Of course there were good reasons for my slackery – there always are – but it’s clear that writing is a dangerous, powerful habit.

At the moment I spend an hour a day in front of my computer or in the Editorium before the evil that is Paid Employment comes to take me away. This really isn’t enough. It’s far, far less than enough when this hour is split between writing and doing Jobs: sending emails, learning to drive (legally) – even writing-related things like sending out submissions are a distraction, a drain, and a stress.

I’m trying to Adult: trying to establish a platform from which to leap forwards into a bold new sunset filled with joy and sunsets and puppies. But it’s also getting me down, making me ratty and weepy; life is a fight sometimes (with due respect to people who don’t have the many wonderful privileges I enjoy, such as a wife who pays the rent, a home that’s brick, not canvas and, indeed, that morning hour) and just now it’s a struggle.

Something’s got to change.

So I’m intending to take a second hour in the evening. As soon as I get through the working day, when the bus has dropped me and I’ve returned to that empty house, I must sit straight back down and do the Business of Life. Emails – detestable things – must be written and responded to. Lists must be made and acted upon. The house will be vacuumed, the spare room cleared.

It’s the only way I can see to grow, to get this Adulting business out of the way. Because my hour in the morning is sacrosanct. I am a writer. I can’t sacrifice this precious time because it’s the only opportunity I have, at the moment, to live a life where I can (theoretically) achieve something I consider worthwhile.

It may seem like this is a downgrading, a sacrifice to commerce, a gradual withdrawal into wage-slavery. But I’m not looking at it like that. Hopefully taking a second hour for work will free up my writing-brain. The guilt will be vanquished. I can get on with what I want to do without that nagging voice at the back of my mind telling me of all the jobs I’m failing on, all the holes in my Bucket of Happiness that need patching. For Reasons this is the busiest I’ve ever been in my life. Something’s got to give. This isn’t going to be writing.

But I also have to make sure I have time to refresh my well of inspiration. The odd pub-visit, or holiday, or hour in front of the television, is not only useful but vital. No-one can write in the midst of nervous exhaustion. You can’t see the page through a mask of tears.

Adulting isn’t just about getting jobs done, nor about money or status. It’s about maintaining yourself, about being a happy, healthy human being. Making Business Time will save not only my writing but my wellbeing. Because things can’t go on as they are right now.

Second guessing

A Writer Faces Self-Doubt

A writer is the most doubting person in the world. No other area that I know if is so filled with uncertainty. Is this project any good? Can it be made better? Will anyone get what I’m trying to do?

There are rules. There are guides to grammar, to structure, to character. But, at the end of the day, the only way a writer can tell if he’s done something worth sharing is to share it. This makes a writer horribly vulnerable – not only to mortifying mockery but also to the extremes of ego. He lives by the judgement of others in a way that very few other fields do (I can think only of other arts) and that can lead to unwarranted cockiness before the inevitable backlash.

Even stranger is the fact that a writer only finds his own voice when he breaks those rules. Mine comes from the way I omit words and write sentences with a word order that’s technically less than optimal. Much of my editing in fact, actually takes the form of removing these tics. Other authors make their reputations by playing with structure and with genre. In the process they create something that’s uniquely ‘them’.

All of which means that no writer is ever sure, when they get words on paper, if what they’ve written is any good. Sure, experience helps – every first-time novelist will think that their first draft is perfect and inviolate. Experience teaches you that that’s only a starting point and most of the work is still to come. It also tells you what you should be looking out for in your own work, if you’ve got your beats in the right place, if the dialogue is to be worked on, if there’s anything you know isn’t quite right.

But it also means that the doubt never quite goes away. You’re never sure you’ve got it right. You constantly second-guess yourself, can’t tell if you’re making substantive improvements or if you’re just tinkering at the margins.

Which is why we need beta-readers. It’s why we need editors, why we need reviews and sales. To tell us that we’ve not been wasting our time, that there is actually something worthwhile in our brains, something that someone else actually enjoys like you do. It’s not about money or status: it’s about the sense of self.

Because when we send that manuscript out to be read we have absolutely no idea if it’s any good or not.

Back to the egg

michaelangelo

A metaphor. By Michaelangelo, so you can tell it’s quality

The journey matters. That’s what a story is: the account of an ‘adventure’, be it a romp through demon-infested caverns or the tale of an old woman’s last days in splendid isolation. And, at its heart, the journey is not a physical voyage but a state of mind. A satisfying story will be one where the characters finish up as different people to those who set out.

This is what I’m getting wrong.

It’s been a gradual feeling creeping over me over the course of several drafts. I have a large cast. Some of the characters I’ve worked with were created on the spur of the moment, designed to fill a need and who have then grown. Others I’ve had in my head for years and I’m finally getting round to setting in an actual story.

Guess which ones I’ve done badly.

Yup, that’s right: it’s the ones I’ve held longest. They don’t grow. They don’t have the arcs. What I’m gradually coming to realise is that I’ve started their tales in the wrong place. They are too complete, too mature: they’ve fought their battles already and have found peace. Great for them but no good for my readers.

When we first see a character in a novel they need to be flawed. They might have incredible powers; they might be geniuses, they might have colossal strength but they don’t have a personality without a flaw. They must have a weakness – either physical or emotional or social – that we must see them conquer.

Which is why the next draft of Oneiromancer must de-age some of my characters. I possibly mean that literally – just take my characters back in time a little – but the crucial thing is that they start at an earlier stage of their development. I’ve skipped the introduction and rushed straight to the climax. No-one likes a Mary-Sue: I must take them back to when they were apprentices, not masters.

This is difficult. I’ve lived with these people for a long time – for too long. They’re fixed in my brain. Hell, they’re wish-fulfilment – the sort of people I want to be. Before I can get it right I need to let go. I need to redefine them in my mind, to divorce them; to sever the emotional bond I’ve built up over a decade or more.

This is a challenge. And I hate hard work.

The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman

old-iron

I first came across this book when I was seven, or thereabouts, whilst visiting one of my father’s friends. Having learnt to love books – and being bored by the grown-ups’ conversation – I cast around for something to do and set my grubby little paws upon this.

I can’t say for sure, but I think I’d recognised the author from the Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman stories that were family favourites. This, however, is not a children’s book. Though deliberately written to ape the simplistic style of a kid’s picture book, it predates authors like Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman and Shigeru Mizuki who, more famously, used the graphic format to convey adult themes.

This is a book that I have never, ever forgotten. So, when I saw a copy at my local donkey sanctuary bookstall I had to pick it up.

It tells the story of the Falklands War. The Tin-Pot General is Galtieri. The Old Iron Lady is Thatcher. They’re depicted as monstrous grotesques like this…

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And this…

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But mixed in with the lunacy of these giant figures you get this…

briggs-1

Child-like manner-of-fact prose that states simple truth. Beautiful, haunting and – for me at least – unforgettable.

There are criticisms to level at it too. Perhaps the work is too simplistic. Is Thatcher as bad as Galtieri? I say this as a committed Leftie who regards Thatcher as a society-destroying vandal. But at least she didn’t head a murderous, corrupt regime responsible for the torture and ‘disappearance’ of 9,000-30,000 of its own citizens. The Falkland Islanders wanted/want to be British. And, as the conflict slips back into the footnotes of history, does the story have a real anti-war message or is the story too specific to that one incident?

Nevertheless, I’m writing this now because the emotions that I felt when reading this as a child have never gone away. Few books have as much power as this. It is a work to make me fall in love with reading all over again, to remind me that creativity will always find new ways to express itself.

I can’t say how glad I am to finally have it in my possession.

Loglines

logline

The elevator pitch. The tagline. The logline. Does it matter? Is it essential to have one at your fingertips?

I’m undecided. I’m currently reading a book on writing that advises you start with your one-line statement before actually writing the story itself. I can kind of see why: getting ‘this is what I’m writing’ front and foremost in the brain will aid focus, keep bringing you back to what really matters.

And then, of course, there’s the sell. A good logline will form the basis of your back-cover blurb. It’ll help you craft a strong, attention-grabbing letter to an agent or publisher (although gimmicky, over-dramatised ‘yelling’ is of course to be avoided) and make it easier to explain your market and sum up the ‘feel’ of your novel.

It’s also good training. To say something coherent, intelligent, mood-setting and intriguing in one or two sentences is a little like writing flash-fiction. Every word matters. Laziness is a sin. The punctuation must be perfect, the hook must reel in the fish.

With that in mind, then, here’s my loglines for my back-catalogue, hastily knocked-out for shits and giggles:

The Ballad of Lady Grace

When a cocky musician is accused of the worst of crimes, the only person he can turn to is the person who’s always hated him. Can they get to the truth – and get their own act together?

Chivalry

In the heat of the city it’s riot season once again. With religious tensions building, a disturbed man stumbles upon a group of gamers who might just help him find himself. But just what are they working towards? Will they find safety, or will they bring about the end of nations?

Night Shift

In the freezing wastes of Antarctica a killer walks. It’s down to the inexperienced security chief to find the culprit – and to find himself – before the crew all freeze beneath the night shift.

Oneiromancer

They come through our dreams; now they walk amongst us and the war we never knew we were fighting has been lost. It’s down to society’s dregs to face their worst fears before the world becomes an endless nightmare.

I’m still not convinced that a good logline is essential but it’s a fun little challenge. For me it remains a work in progress; just how do you distil your magnum opus into a single line? To get it right takes a lot longer than the fifteen minutes I’ve spent on these.

I’d welcome your thoughts – and feel free to share your loglines in the comments.

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?

The critic’s black heart

litcrit

When you see the eyes start to glaze it’s time to back off.

I’m not proud of myself. I’m not a good person. Reducing someone to tears is not an achievement – not that it quite got that far, but still. Close is too close.

Writing is a tough, personal business. After you’ve scratched and scrapped your way to a completed work you’re attached to it; you love your characters and you’re proud of your achievements. Rightly so. Even the very worst adolescent scribblings is worth more than the “I could do better if I had the time”s in the world. So the very last thing you need is for some jackass like me come along and rip your work to shreds.

It’s worse because I’ve had it happen to me. I have no excuse.

Shall we contextualise a little? Last week I met with my fellow write-smiths to feed back on one of my colleagues’ work-in-progressese. It was a first draft. It had flaws: flaws that made me write in capital letters on my notes. Errors that frustrated me, made me rant. Which is not to say that it didn’t have merit; it most certainly did. But I find it hard to praise when the plot-holes are so large you could fit a Dostoyevsky in them.

This is my confession. I should have backed off. I should have seen the mood and picked my words more carefully. I should have spared the blade.

Criticism has to be pitched to the mood, to the recipient, to the look in the eyes. If, as I said at the beginning, you see the eyes start to glaze and your words are bouncing off like bullets from a cyborg heroine, it’s time to stop. To pause, get another drink, have a metaphorical cigarette. The last thing you want to do is make someone abandon their precious. All writers put a lot of themselves in their work. To insult their prose is to pierce their hearts.

The point of criticism is to help. That’s worth stating explicitly. It’s not a podium from which to demonstrate one’s own superiority. It’s not to highlight the ways in which you could do better; it’s not the place to show your command of words or of plot or dialogue or character. You’re there to help – either to aid the reader in finding a work that’s right for them, or, as in this case, to help the writer produce a better story.

I fear I did not do that. And for that I’m truly sorry.