The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

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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.

An offering to the New Gods

An author very rarely reads their own work. I don’t mean working through it, but actually sitting back and letting the words float through their subconscious, with no attempt to ‘improve’ the text in any way, shape or form. We’re tinkerers by nature. It’s an alien concept to just let the words wash over us. We’re also wincers, in the ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe I wrote something so facile’ sense.

I finished my rough draft of New Gods getting on for a year and a half ago now. Since then it’s been set back in the metaphorical closet whilst I wrestled with Night Shift and Australis. But now two things have caused me to take up my Kindle (other e-readers are available, as are books) and read over my own work.

The first thing is that I’m approaching a brief lacunae in Night Shift. Draft 9a should be finished by the time you read this, and then I have a pause whilst it goes out to beta-readers. The second factor is my Fiction (Adult) Group is currently going over New Gods and will haul me over the metaphoricals next week and I need to be prepared. And by ‘being prepared’ I mean I need to know what the hell happens. I can barely remember anything but the beginning and the end.

So what have I learnt so far? Well, my writing, by and large, hangs together in a not-too-bad fashion. It’s all correct and (I think) tells a decent story. So I’m not beating myself up too much about the errors, of which there are plenty. But the one thing I’ve learnt over the last year is to really take my time with my characters. Too many of my conversations are simply there to get a job done – to move the novel from one scene to another with a minimum of fuss. But that fuss matters. That’s what I’ve learnt. The whole novel needs patience; I need to allow my characters to breath, to express themselves.

When I were but a lad I read things like ‘every line has to have a purpose’ and ‘the story needs to be constantly moving forwards’, and I think I absorbed these mantras in a particularly shallow way. Yes, everything needs to keep moving and every word needs to justify its place in the novel, but that’s left conversations terse and oddly unrealistic. It doesn’t matter how well you know a character’s personality, past and inner life if they never have a chance to express these subtleties. My world is empty. I need to really make it come alive.

That’s writing. You start with a blank canvas and then you fill it with shape and colour and direction. Then you go over and pick out the outlines, add light and shadow, make the nebulous solid and (sometimes) the solid nebulous.

I’m not too worried about the actual quality of the prose. I’m no genius; the words aren’t great at present, but they’ll improve draft-on-draft until it achieves something approaching respectability. What I need second opinions on is the basic plot – what convinces and what doesn’t, who comes alive and who remains a cipher throughout. That’s why I’m offering myself up to creative evisceration and it’s why I’m going through NG myself. It’s been a long time, and I hope I’ve managed to divest myself of the personal link with the work which can blind the best of us to its flaws.

I shall keep you posted.